We live in a competition culture. Shows like Big Brother, I’m a Celebrity and X-Factor, plus the endless slew of celebrity-rating magazines, have helped create a society in which we are constantly judging other people. Who’s hottest? Who’s most talented? Who do we like more? Who do we want to evict from the house? I thought it would be interesting if a serial killer posed these questions, raising the stakes so it became a matter of life and death.
Telling this story in the world of “ordinary” people, rather than celebrities, made the question posed a universal one. Would you kill another to save your skin? Most of us would like to think we would say “no”. Or if we did do it, we would justify it to ourselves by saying we have a partner, kids etc who rely on us. But I wondered if there was something more basic and more primal within all of us that might push us to pull the trigger. At the end of the day, are we all hardwired to survive?
I had never written a novel before. In my day job as a TV producer, I had read scores of crime novels, looking for stories and characters that might transfer well to the small screen. And often I had been disappointed by them – so many stories seemed to travel a well-trodden route – a male cop with familiar failings, a young girl found dead in woodland and so on. Often I loved the ideas behind them and was drawn to the psychology of the criminals. Patricia Highsmith and Thomas Harris are two of my absolute favourite authors – nobody gets the psychology of bad guys like those two – but often the cops doing the chasing felt tired and obvious.
And then I read The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. This changed my attitude to crime fiction and inspired me to have a go myself. Eeny Meeny owes a big debt to Stieg Larsson and his amazing trilogy because his writing, his stories, his characters taught me that the good guys don’t have to be dull. Has there ever been a more unusual, more provocative, more arresting investigator than Lisbeth Salander? This was the first time I’d read a book in which the protagonist was more interesting than the people she was pursuing and it inspired me to think differently when creating my heroine, DI Helen Grace. Helen is an unusual character – troubled, closed, often self-hating – but because she has moral and mental strength she is able to resist the usual cop pitfalls – drink, failed marriages etc – that bedevil crime fiction. She refuses to be the victim and like Salander refuses to conform, hence her predilection for S&M. As I wrote Eeny Meeny, I had a sign taped on the wall above my desk that read: “Don’t make your heroine boring”. I hope I have succeeded. Certainly Helen has many stories to tell and a long road to go on as she seeks that redemption, that sense of peace that seems forever just out of reach.
Eeeny Meeny by M J Arlidge is published by Penguin