British crime writer M.J. Arlidge talks to Craig Sisterson about why he favours strong leading ladies in modern thrillers.

It's said we make decisions out of love or fear, but for British television producer Matt Arlidge, his life-changing recipe seems a mixture of both, with a little ennui sprinkled in too.

Back in 2013, Arlidge had racked up more than a decade's experience working on stories told onscreen, rising from script-editing Eastenders and Monarch of the Glen to scripting Silent Witness. But he really wanted to write novels, and over the past couple of years, his TV-honed knack for speedy storytelling has spawned one of the most intriguing detective series in contemporary crime fiction.

"I was nervous of writing a screenplay as I didn't want to be judged - or found wanting - by all my friends and peers in the TV world," he confesses. "It seemed safer to write a novel and step into a world where I had nothing to prove. Eeny Meeny was originally a television idea that grew into my first novel - which is probably why it's now being adapted for TV by the BBC."

Released last May, Eeny Meeny was a chilling debut shot through with plenty of gut-level fear. A woman stumbles from the woods, barely alive, babbling an unbelievable tale that she was abducted, starved, and forced to kill a loved one to survive. Then the sole survivor of another kidnapped couple is found, and Detective Inspector Helen Grace of the Southampton police - a rather dark and damaged personality herself - must hunt down a particularly sinister psychopath.


With its disturbing themes, cinematic storytelling and breakneck pace, Eeny Meeny was very much "Saw meet James Patterson", to coin a screen-style comparison.

Arlidge had dive-bombed the darker end of the crime fiction pool, where the likes of Mo Hayder and New Zealand's Paul Cleave excel, and created a big splash. Eeny Meeny was tabbed a Summer Pick by the influential Richard and Judy Book Club, drew glowing reviews from a swathe of top authors, and became Britain's bestselling crime debut of the year. But Arlidge didn't rest on his laurels.

Forget a book a year: Liar Liar, where a serial arsonist terrorises the city, is the fourth DI Helen Grace tale to hit booksellers' shelves in just 16 months. Eeny Meeny was followed last year by Pop Goes The Weasel, then The Doll's House earlier this year.

"I do write very fast," says Arlidge, "partly because I am very organised and rigid in my planning, but mostly because I love Helen Grace and adore writing these novels. It's a happy accident, serendipity, that just as I hit 40, I found the thing I love doing most in the world."

So enraptured was Arlidge with Helen Grace's potential for an ongoing series that when he pitched his first attempt at a novel to his publisher, he didn't just offer them Eeny Meeny, but an outline of Grace's next six adventures, then unwritten.

"Obviously things do evolve as I write each book, but Helen's future is very much mapped out and the novels all have detailed serial elements for the loyal reader to enjoy. In the next few novels you are likely to discover some pretty amazing things about Helen."

While Arlidge's screen leanings infuse his novels with plenty of pace, tension, and visuals, Helen Grace is the keystone, a motorcycle-riding loner who uses S&M as an outlet rather than drink or drugs.

Arlidge says he was heartily sick of "boring, middle-aged white male coppers" with a penchant for drinking and introspection. A fan of Scandinavian crime for the way it "excels at creating fallen worlds in which everyone is tainted", Arlidge was drawn to Lisbeth Salander (Millennium Trilogy), Sarah Lund (The Killing) and Saga Noren (The Bridge) rather than Inspectors Wallander, Erlendur, or Harry Hole.

"I basically find women more interesting. I can pretty much tell exactly what my male friends are thinking in any given situation, but women are more complex and unpredictable in all sorts of good ways. I think life is still harder for women - which in terms of fiction is good, as you want to throw as many rocks as you can at your key characters.

"Helen is a troubled soul, but hopefully an intriguing one," he explains. "She may be isolated, distant and tough, but we see the root cause of her crushing feelings of guilt and inadequacy, so hopefully we understand her and feel there is enough vulnerability there to temper the steel. The fact she's morally pure and strong is a massive help - she's fighting to gain justice for the vulnerable and oppressed, which always makes us like someone."

Liar Liar by M.J. Arlidge (Michael Joseph $37) is out now.