Love Me Not: a 24-hour thriller
If there is one quality that epitomises the Helen Grace novels, it is pace. Right from the off, this is what readers have commented on and responded to – the short chapters, the multiple, interweaving stories, the sudden shifts of POV all combining to create thrillers which are breathless and (I hope) unputdownable. In Love Me Not, I decided to take this a step further and tell the whole story over twenty-four hours. My ambition, quite simply, was to tell the most adrenalized Helen Grace story yet.
I am really pleased with the result – Love Me Not is nothing if not a rollercoaster ride – but it wasn’t an easy book to write. For in my haste to up the ante, I had overlooked one simple, but very important fact. Most murder investigations are driven by pathology and forensics these days – such is the sophistication of modern crime-fighting techniques, DNA sampling and so on – but these processes take time. Time you don’t have when you are writing a self-contained, 24-hour thriller. As I sat down to carve out the structure, as this slow realisation dawned, I was momentarily stumped. The characters of Jim Grieves, Southampton Central’s irascible pathologist and Meredith Walker, the forensics chief, have become increasingly important figures in the Helen Grace novels – but there was no room for them in Love Me Not. There would simply not be enough time for them to do their jobs.
Faced by this potential roadblock, I had to approach the story in a slightly different way. Without the two basic planks of an investigation, I realised that Helen and her team would have to be canny in the ways they attempted to identify and capture the spree killers who seem intent on terrorising Southampton. Analysing CCTV and eyewitness statements would be key, as would telephonic monitoring and mobile intercepts. But most important of all would be the question of motive. Spree killers strike hard and fast – destroying numerous lives before inevitably facing death or capture themselves – and the tricky thing for law enforcement officers is working out whether their trail of bloodshed is random and opportunistic or pre-meditated and deliberate. If it’s the former, then you’re likely to be chasing your tail, but if it’s the latter then, in theory, it should be possible to divine a pattern and predict where and when the killers will strike next – and be waiting for them when they do. This is Helen’s challenge in Love Me Not – one which she doesn’t shirk from.
The breathless nature of the story and the instinctive, real-time nature of the detection makes Love Me Not a very modern crime thriller, one which sadly chimes with the spirit of our times. Britain has been plagued by terrorist atrocities in recent months – as I write a bomb has just partially detonated at Parsons Green tube station – and the response from the police is always swift, decisive and wide-ranging. A manhunt is currently underway for the Parsons Green bomber, as there has been after similar attacks, and though forensics may have a role to play, it is witness sightings, snatched mobile phone footage, analysis of mobile phone call logs and data that will prove crucial. This will be done in real time, teams of analysts and officers pouring over the detail in an attempt to capture those responsible and prevent further attacks. Once they have a name, a forensic examination of their background, character, state of mind and circle of friends (both online and real world) will take place, testing theories as to what their intentions are, where they might be heading, where they might be planning next. The pressure on those involved in this hunt will be huge, as the clock is ticking and there will be little margin for error. This is the face of modern policing and it is something I have tried to reflect in Love Me Not, portraying a world in which the police have a major role to play in apprehending those who kill without conscience, but are only able to do so by working hand in glove with ordinary members of the public, the eyes and ears on the street. We are all part of the story now, whether we like it or not.
Capturing this sense of a real-time emergency has been a challenge and one which I have really enjoyed. Would I attempt a 24-hour thriller again? Yes, definitely, but not anytime soon. Each Helen Grace novel differs from the last and book eight will be a very different beast from Love Me Not. I like to keep things fresh and I am keen to dive back into pathology and forensics once more. Jim Grieves and Meredith Walker would be very cross with me if I didn’t.
Not yet discovered MJ Arlidge’s brilliant Helen Grace thrillers? Check out all the books in order here.