The Birth of Helen Grace by M. J. Arlidge Author of Eeny Meeny

The Birth of Helen Grace by M. J. Arlidge Author of Eeny Meeny

Serial killers lie at the extreme end of the pathological spectrum: they are the baddest of bad guys. Our interest in their psychology is even more acute, as their behaviour is often bewildering in its depravity and aggression. In real life the details are often too shocking for us to take in – a good book on Fred and Rose West remains one of the very few books I’ve abandoned halfway through – but through the prism of fiction they become compelling and intriguing. And if Highsmith taught me to love transgression, then Thomas Harris taught me (and many others) to love serial killers. In Harris’s novels these rare criminals are not glimpsed from afar, instead you are ushered into their homes, their jobs, their minds, to witness the small details, both mundane and chilling, that make these killers who they are. Harris’s 360-degree depictions of these remorseless predators, be they Hannibal Lecter, Buffalo Bill or the Red Dragon, ensures they could never feel generic or clichéd. They are fully sentient, threedimensional human beings. And all the more scary for it.

To both Highsmith and Harris I owe a debt of gratitude, and their influence can be felt in Eeny Meeny and the subsequent Helen Grace novels. Most obviously in my decision to focus on serial killers, but also in my determination to ensure that the antagonists in my books are every bit as detailed, rich and complex as the heroine who hunts them. For me the creative process often begins with a flash of inspiration about a particular need or obsession, which if pushed to the extreme would force someone to kill again and again. And once an idea takes hold, I find it hard to stop – worrying away at the darkness and light that wrestles within these strange characters until they stand in front of me, demanding my attention. Why do I find them so fascinating? It could be that transgression thing again. Or maybe it’s just the logical extension of the power that all good fiction possesses: the ability to transport us from our humdrum lives to strange and unfamiliar worlds.

But serial killers cannot operate in a vacuum. They need an adversary and, if luck is on the copper’s side, a nemesis. I will confess that this was the area I had always found most challenging. So many of the cops you discover in books or on TV seem almost interchangeable, as if there was some sort of received wisdom about how to construct your (usually male) protagonist. So much so that you frequently find yourself falling into the obvious traps without meaning to, creating identikit heroes and heroines in the process. So I owe Stieg Larsson a big one, because he taught me to love the good guys.

Two words: Lisbeth Salander. Has there ever been a more unlikely and compelling investigator? This avenging angel with her tattoos, piercings, wandering sexuality and absolute moral clarity completely blew me away. As I sped through the Dragon Tattoo trilogy I found myself rooting more and more for this emotionally stunted young woman who had suffered terribly but who always refused to be the victim.

For me reading about Lisbeth and her equally compromised ally Mikael Blomkvist taught me one vitally important lesson: good guys don’t have to be dull. Often there is an unspoken assumption in fiction that we will find the rogues and villains more interesting than the heroes – excited more by Darth Vader and Han Solo than the nicer, more nutritional Luke Skywalker – and I had frequently found myself underwhelmed by the stalwart cops, with their familiar dysfunctions and character tropes, who were tasked with bringing the guilty to book. They always seemed unexciting by comparison, pale imitations of the demons they were chasing. Occasionally a notable exception such as Clarice Starling would burst forth, but it was when I was reading The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo that for the first time that I encountered a heroine who was more thrilling than the criminals she was pursuing. Her backstory was so compelling and complex, her wounds so wide and so fresh, her intelligence so keen and her will so unbending. She was unpredictable, sexy, contradictory and often dangerous. Her very youth seemed to define her, giving her a modernity and freshness as well as a youthful vigour that stood out. There was no room for grizzled old coppers here – justice being dispensed by hackers and journalists – and the books were all the better for it.

The landscape of crime fiction seemed a different place for me after reading Stieg Larsson. And he inspired me to have a go myself. I wrote a note on the wall above my desk, ‘Your heroine must not be boring,’ in a nod to the lesson I’d learned from Larsson. I was determined that the copper at the heart of Eeny Meeny would be different. Making her a woman was a good start, but there was still much to do. I wanted family to be at the heart of her particular dysfunction (as it is for most of us). I also knew I wanted Helen to be a character who from an early age was equipped to make tough moral choices. Slowly Helen’s backstory started to emerge. She’s a strange fish, no question – aggressive yet elusive, a woman who’s closest emotional relationship is with her dominator, Jake – but this secretive character was fun to open up and the more I wrote her, the more I liked her.

She is a character shaped by her experiences; past traumas have made her resilient and hard to crack, but have also fostered in her a determination to fight for the vulnerable and to never give up her in quest for justice. But these virtues have come at a cost: her guilt and shame at her actions compel her to seek a form of redemption that one suspects will be hard to achieve. This desire for forgiveness, for some sort of peace, is key to understanding Helen’s character. In harbouring this deep need for atonement, she resembles the complex and compromised characters of the last of my favourite authors, Graham Greene. Many of his most memorable protagonists seek absolution for past and present crimes and it was partly as a nod to this deep human need that I decided on Helen’s surname: Grace.

Will she ever achieve this state? Only time will tell. Highsmith, Harris, Larsson and Greene have got me this far. The rest is anyone’s guess.

Leave a Reply