English noir or seaside noir?Eeny Meeny by MJ Arlidge English noir seaside nor, review by Charles Harris

We’ve had classic Hollywood noir, Scandi noir and the fast-rising Tartan noir, north of the border. But what of English noir?

Or perhaps even seaside noir – burgeoning at the other end of the country on the South Coast?

From Graham Greene’s Brighton Rock, through Peter James (also in Brighton), now we meet Southampton’s Major Investigation Team, led by the severely mixed-up, emotionally challenged DI Helen Grace.

MJ Arlidge’s Helen Grace series of dark police thrillers is now into its seventh novel, So I decided to check out Eeny Meeny – where Grace makes her first, dramatic appearance.

The story

Two ordinary people have been kidnapped, but there is a twist. The anonymous kidnapper has left them a gun. If one kills the other, then he or she will be set free.

One couple after another are led through this gruesome moral maze, pushed to the point where they face the ultimate dark choice: to kill or be killed.

Cue Detective Inspector Helen Grace. When she initially encounters these harrowing crimes, there appears to be absolutely no obvious motive or connection. But then surprising links begin to emerge. Links which lead, shockingly, to the release of some very personal demons.

Grace, herself, has her darker issues, which are explored in the book. But Arlidge has sensibly avoided the usual police tropes of alcohol abuse and estranged spouse. And in a neat twist, her own psychological problems turn out to be satisfyingly important to solving the case.

This is most definitely not one of the cozy mysteries I wrote about last week.

English noir

But don’t worry that you are going to be faced with great gobbets of trauma-babble. Arlidge touches lightly on the psychology, and ensures that it never gets in the way of a rattling good yarn.

Which is, I feel, where English noir differs most significantly from the other noir traditions.

Where a Chandler or Hammett may be interested in the traumas of men returning from the horrors of war, and Jo Nesbø wants to give us sleepless nights with his descriptions of gruesome murder, English noir tends to treat horror as entertainment.

A dark moral choice

Don’t be mistaken. Arlidge delivers a full measure of grime. There are a number of characters from the lower depths. The kidnap victims are locked up and left to moulder away, without, let’s say, adequate plumbing arrangements.

And of course the moral choice – to kill an innocent person so as to survive yourself – forces us to face the darkness inside all of us.

Yet his interests lie less in the direction of shocking the reader than drawing us in. Where other writers might have revelled in the darker details, he has his eyes firmly fixed on the prize of keeping the reader engaged, page after page.

Arlidge, himself, has an impressive track record in TV drama, having produced and written many successful TV crime dramas in the UK and US. So it’s no surprise that he creates a page-turner of a story. The dialogue, too, is suitably sharp and very cinematic.

If I have one cavil, it’s that the opening is a bit too much of a TV teaser. The first chapters, rather too fixated on creating a cinematic “hook.” As a result they don’t engage with character in the way the start of a good novel would generally demand.

Once the story gets its engine going, the result, nevertheless, is a nail-biting, roller-coaster of a story, with clever twists that kept me guessing to the very end.

Check it out:

Eeny Meeny by MJ Arlidge