Just when you thought crime fiction couldn’t get more gruesome, along comes MJ Arlidge’s Eeny Meeny to raise the bar. Even the publisher’s marketing campaign was edgy and disturbing.
In this suspenseful novel, mainly set in Hampshire, someone is kidnapping pairs of victims and placing their drugged bodies in sealed containers. They wake up to discover themselves together in a dark cell, with no food or water, and no clear exit. Only a mobile phone and a gun loaded with a single bullet. When the phone rings, the message is simple: ‘One of you must die for the other to be freed.’ Facing starvation, thirst, and surrounded by their own gathering filth, the two people face a harrowing dilemma wherein action is necessary before their emaciated bodies lose the strength to decide.
DI Helen Grace meets Amy, the traumatised survivor of this grim scenario who was, until recently, half of a perfectly happy couple. She and her boyfriend Sam had everything to live for before they were kidnapped and sealed away for 11 days, until Amy crawled out as the sole survivor of the ordeal.
Amy’s story is so hard to believe that Helen’s investigative team begins looking for motives for murder in Amy’s past. But when another survivor staggers out of a similar hell and describes a mysterious woman luring couples to their demise, the team begins to look for connections between the cases as they face a possible serial murderer. The problem with their cold and calculating perpetrator is that she leaves no traces behind and fewer ideas about her identity or who her next victims will be.
Arlidge will find a willing audience among fans of psychological thrillers who appreciate clever plot turns, not to mention fans of the Saw franchise, who will delight in some choice set pieces of torture porn (a certain scene involving maggots should win some sort of award). The author has a knack for taut, vivid suspense. But that doesn’t quite make up for the overall woodenness of the characters. The somewhat stilted narrative alternates between their perspectives, but not to the best effect. Despite efforts made to render real personalities and motivations, it’s not easy to care for Helen Grace, although she has great potential as a character.
There is no doubt that DI Grace is made of strong stuff. For a female leader in a male-dominated force, she is considered the ideal candidate. She has no family to weigh her down and no romantic attachments that might divide her attention from the case. She has an interesting dark side that is revealed and is even relevant to the case. Her partner Mark is a good cop with a crumbling family situation who faces alcoholism and must redeem himself. There is also Charlie Brooks, who must prove herself to her boss. The characters come off as contrived, which would be fine provided they had more life in them, but it’s hard to get into a series when you’re just not into the detective or the team.
One interesting character is Emilia, the investigative reporter who hounds the authorities, who are keeping a tight lid on the cases and their own PR message. When vital information about the case is leaked from inside, suspicions turn towards her team, so Grace must also identify the mole before their murder investigation is compromised. This plot line complicates the investigation but also puts into relief the budding relationship between Grace and her partner Mark, as well as other members of her team. But here again, we’re just not feeling it. It is the events, rather than the characters, that carry us through some stunning revelations that culminate in the rather rushed unmasking of the villain near the end.
If you’re looking for subtle humor to offset all of this darkness you should go elsewhere, as this book seems to take itself a little too seriously and just doesn’t ring true. With Arlidge’s distinct flair for suspense and creative staging this is a pretty strong debut, but it remains to be seen whether these growing pains will ease in the next installment, Pop Goes the Weasel.
CFL Rating: 3 Stars