Searching For Bodies In Chelsea Cain's Portland Crime writer Chelsea Cain sees danger lurking in the most pastoral corners of the polite Northwest city she calls home. Ketzel Levine dares to search for skeletons with the writer.
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Searching For Bodies In Chelsea Cain's Portland

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Searching For Bodies In Chelsea Cain's Portland

Searching For Bodies In Chelsea Cain's Portland

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In the books of the thriller writer Chelsea Cain, the city of Portland, Oregon is a character, and that character is a woman.

Ms. CHELSEA CAIN (Author): A hot woman in hiking boots.

INSKEEP: A woman with complicated relationships.

Ms. CAIN: She's probably got a little bit of a complex involving her older sister, her big sister in San Francisco, and her middle sister, Seattle.

INSKEEP: And as imagined by the author, Portland is one haunted babe. In our continuing series, Crime in the City, NPR senior correspondent Ketzel Levine tours the dark down with the darker still Chelsea Cain.

KETZEL LEVINE: This much I know. She likes being noticed. Even on this empty beach along the Columbia River, the silk scarf loose around her neck trails her like Dior, Poison. Her dark glasses and Vamp lipstick are startling as the wind whips her unnaturally-honeyed hair.

Ms. CAIN: I started walking here with my mom, and I actually came to Portland when my mom was dying of cancer. That's how I moved to Portland. So right away, I had this sort mixed relationship with the city.

LEVINE: Chelsea Cain may fly her sentences like kites, but she is no dippy dame.

Ms. CAIN: I often, when I'm walking in the wilderness, keep my eyes open for bodies. I do, ever since I was a kid. You know, I think I read too many Nancy Drew books to start, and it went from there. You know, you never know when you might come across a dead body, and the converse of that is to think, well, where is a good place to dump a dead body?

LEVINE: She points to a mound of sand. I know where this is heading. "Heartsick." I've read the book.

Unidentified Man: She'd been strangled and then soaked in bleach, like the others. She lay five feet from the water's edge on her back, head to the side. One leg was slightly bent, the other straight, tangled in river weed.

LEVINE: In an unholy mess on a stretch of sand and sunshine, why has Chelsea Cain dreamt a corpse into being here, on Portland's pastoral Sauvie Island, 10 miles west and a twilight zone from urban woe? Then it hits me like a pick of you-pick berries: beauty kills.

Ms. CAIN: People come to Portland, many of them for the quality of life. And yet, you know, every year, people climbing the mountain get killed by avalanches, and I think that there's just a really interesting tension in the fact that there's this incredibly beautiful environment all around us that picks people off one-by-one.

(Soundbite of traffic)

LEVINE: Frankly, it's a relief to be back in the city. Truth is, it's a little unnerving being alone with Chelsea Cain. Her dark side is as startling as silence on the radio. You see what I mean?

The leafy boulevards of downtown Portland are not among Chelsea Cain's crime scenes yet. So far, she's only published the one thriller, "Heartsick," but I've a bad feeling. That's why we're about to sneak in where we're not supposed to be.

I feel like somebody's going to come around the corner and bust us.

Ms. CAIN: Just act naturally.

LEVINE: We're in a club, members-only. Gail Hace Davis(ph) got us in, a woman with the looks of a trophy wife and the brains of a school principal.

Thank you.

Unidentified Man #2: Certainly.

LEVINE: Turns out, she was one. We're here because this place, the Arlington Club, will figure in Chelsea Cain's sequel, a book no one has yet seen.

Ms. CAIN: The detective, at one point, and the journalist come and stay here. There's a serial killer on the loose, and they're in danger, so they put them in the Arlington for safekeeping.

Ms. DAVIS: Yes, you can't get in without being noticed.

Ms. CAIN: It's like the Berlin Wall. They shoot you if you come across it.

Ms. DAVIS: No.

(Soundbite of laughter)

LEVINE: Thinking to walk out before getting thrown out, I make our excuses. Next stop, Portland's densely wooded refuge. It's name: Forest Park.

Unidentified Man #3: Careful, (unintelligible).

LEVINE: This is where we're meeting a friend of Chelsea Cain's, writer Suzy Vitelli, who holds in her hand a cheap, shiny paperback. It isn't - it is -it's "Sweetheart," the sequel, and it's due out this fall.

Ms. SUZY VITELLI (Writer): Forest Park was pretty in the summer. Portland's ash sky was barely visible behind a canopy of aspens, hemlocks, cedars and maples that filtered with the light to a shimmer pale green. The creek hummed and churned. Birds chirped. It was all very lovely, very "Walden," except for the corpse.

LEVINE: Something's not quite right about this Suzy Vitelli. This much I know. She's no innocent. The woman's too quick to agree that this model train set of a city could contain such evil.

Ms. VITELLI: The books that are set in Portland aren't generally in this genre, and so it's sort of breaking new ground, and I think it's helping to broaden people's idea of what's here.

LEVINE: None for the good. That's my take. I see the city's jewel, Forest Park. She and her writing buddies see a graveyard.

Ms. VITELLI: I'm sure there are bodies just waiting to be dug up.

LEVINE: Are you serious?

Ms. VITELLI: I'm sure.

LEVINE: Bodies in Forest Park?

Ms. VITELLI: It's 5,000 acres.

Ms. CAIN: There are at least five bodies in the park right now.

Ms. VITELLI: I'd agree.

LEVINE: Oh, please - bodies. Yet Chelsea Cain won't relent. She dares me to come back to the park with her alone - tonight. She will hold the flashlight.

Chelsea, put the light on.

Ms. CAIN: Sorry.

LEVINE: We have been here before, but now it's pitch black, and we're heading into Forest Park.

Ms. CAIN: Are you scared?

LEVINE: I'm a little uncomfortable.

Ms. CAIN: Hear that creek?

(Soundbite of running water)

Ms. CAIN: And the air is exquisite. It's not very ominous.

LEVINE: So why thrillers?

Ms. CAIN: It just - it was a story, you know. I love scary stories.

LEVINE: (unintelligible).

Ms. CAIN: Okay. You lead the way. Oh, look at this. Somebody was buried alive here. And this is…

LEVINE: Stop it.

Ms. CAIN: …the pipe they'll have to breath through.

LEVINE: Okay. You know, I talked about the bodies in Forest Park. I think we're the bodies that we're looking for.

Ms. CAIN: Okay, I'm going to go down, and then I'm going to shine the flashlight up. So I'm going to leave you for just a moment, okay?


Ms. CAIN: Okay.

LEVINE: You know, an imagination like this woman's, and you start walking in the park at night with a flashlight, and you can understand what she comes up with, even in a beautiful, idyllic place like Portland.

Ms. CAIN: Whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa.

INSKEEP: Ketzel? Ketzel Levine? Looks like another reporter vanished into our Crime in the City series. You can find out what happened to Ketzel Levine at

(Soundbite of music)

INSKEEP: By this Friday, we hope to find some correspondent willing to continue this series with a portrait of Joseph Wambaugh, who's a former L.A. cop.

Mr. JOSEPH WAMBAUGH (Author): Before I came along, "Dragnet" and "Adam-12" were good public-relations vehicles for the LAPD, but they didn't attempt, ever, to tell how the job acts on the cop. The cops in those stories were stick figures.


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