Sunday, April 17, 2016


POP GOES THE WEASEL by MJ Arlidge (Penguin, 2014)

Reviewed by Craig Sisterson

The body of a middle-aged man is discovered in Southampton's red-light district - horrifically mutilated, with his heart removed. Hours later - and barely cold - the heart arrives with his wife and children by courier. A pattern emerges when another male victim is found dead and eviscerated, his heart delivered soon afterwards.

The media call it Jack the Ripper in reverse; revenge against the men who lead sordid double lives visiting prostitutes. For Grace, only one thing is certain: there's a vicious serial-killer at large who must be halted at all costs ... 

It's fitting that MJ Arlidge's second Helen Grace thriller shares a title with a James Patterson book, as the two authors have a bit in common when it comes to their crime storytelling. Frankly, Arlidge would be a great "If you like James Patterson then you should try..." option for fans of Patterson's Alex Cross books who are looking for a new author to try, as the British author delivers the same staccato chapters, action-packed plotting, and veering over-the-top psychopathic villains the popular American is famous for, while also offering a bit more when it comes to character depth.

Pop Goes The Weasel follows closely on the heels of Arlidge's dark and twisted debut Eeny Meeny, which made quite a splash - it was a summer pick of the influential Richard & Judy Book Club and became the bestselling British crime debut of 2014. In the first book in the series crime readers were introduced to DI Helen Grace of the Southampton Police, a motorcycle riding hard-ass who has a far different way to relieve stress and process the darkness she sees than the typical alcoholic detective.
As I noted in a feature about Arlidge for the New Zealand Herald last year, with its disturbing themes, cinematic storytelling and breakneck pace, Eeny Meeny was very much "Saw meet James Patterson", to coin a screen-style comparison. In that book a serial killer abducted people who knew each other, starved them, and forced one to kill the other to survive. The case ended up hitting far closer to home for Grace than the detective, a fairly damaged personality herself, could imagine.

In Pop Goes The Weasel, Grace and her colleagues are still recovering from the aftermath of events in Eeny Meeny. The show must go on for the police detectives, of course, as new crimes are committed and need to be solved, but there is a shadow, a taint, from what was experienced.

While much of the team is intact, Grace has a new boss, Ceri Harwood, and the pair don't see eye to eye on several issues, adding extra stress to Grace's life. When a religious man is found in a park frequented by prostitutes, his chest torn open, then his heart is delivered to his family, Grace and her colleagues know they are in a race against time with another twisted psychopath on the loose.

I thoroughly enjoyed Pop Goes the Weasel. It's a quick read with plenty of action, centered on an intriguing heroine that brings a bit of freshness to the British police procedural genre. Being blunt, like Patterson, Arlidge is unlikely to earn acclaim for the elegance or lyricism of his writing - this is plot-centric crime fiction mainly focused on pace, tension, and visuals - entertainment first and foremost. There's nothing wrong with that though, and although some other crime writers may delve much more deeply into character, setting, or social issues, Arlidge does a good job giving enough of a veneer of those elements without ever slowly down the helter-skelter pace and propulsive narrative.

Helen Grace, in particular, is a standout creation. She's a leader but also a loner, keeping people at a distance, and with a tough shell. She is pretty intriguing as she juggles her insecurities with the competent and confident exterior she tries to maintain at work. Getting the job done while verging on coming apart at the seams. Arlidge has created a nice mix of strength and vulnerability that is very human, so that despite Grace's courage and kick-assery, she never feels like a cartoon supercop.

If you're looking for a fast-paced crime thriller that entertains as the pages whir then you might want to give Arlidge's Helen Grace series a go. I'll certainly be reading more myself.

Craig Sisterson is a New Zealander who writes for newspapers and magazines in several countries. He has interviewed 150 crime and thriller writers, discussed the genre at literary festivals and on national radio, and is the Judging Convenor of the Ngaio Marsh Award. You can follow him on Twitter: @craigsisterson

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