Pop Goes the Weasel : A Conversation With M.J. Arlidge

Photo: Bill Waters

For the last fifteen years, M.J. Arlidge has worked in television, specializing in drama production; and during the last five years, produced prime-time crime serials for ITV, including Torn, The Little House, and Undeniable.

His bestselling debut novel in the UK was Eeny Meeny in which he introduced Detective Inspector Helen Grace. The second in the series, Pop Goes the Weasel, takes place soon after the events of Eeny Meeny, while Helen and another police officer are still reeling from the impact of the first case. A man's body is found ripped open in Southampton's red light district, and the victim's heart is sent to his widow. Days later, another victim turns up and the search for a serial killer begins. Complications arise, and Helen Grace must persevere before the killer strikes again.

Both Eeny Meeny and Pop Goes the Weasel are titles derived from children's nursery rhymes. Why choose nursery rhymes for titles?
The inspiration came from the first book, Eeny Meeny which was based on a deadly game the victims were forced to play--deciding which one of them would die. The original title for that book was Nemesis, which we thought was terrible. My agent came up with the idea of Eeeny Meeny, which we loved. It inspired us to think of other children's rhymes and childlike titles. It works because when you create sinister serial killer material with a childlike title, it draws the reader in. We decided to run with that theme. The next one is called A Doll's House; Liar, Liar will follow; and the fifth will be called Little Boy Blue.

I read both Eeny Meeny and Pop Goes the Weasel. Was it difficult to write the latter without including spoilers for Eeny Meeny?
It was difficult. I had to decide how much material to carry over from Eeny Meeny. My ambition is to create novels that can be enjoyed as standalones, but for the loyal reader who loves Helen Grace and the other characters, I had to include some material from the earlier novel to propel the characters forward. Real people don't live their lives in isolation. I think that's part of the secret to any good crime franchise--to have a series' character people really want to get to know better. People in the UK and U.S. seem to really respond to Helen and Charlie and want to go where they do.

Pop goes the Weasel has short chapters. Will you talk about this?
Short chapters came from my own experience.

I have two small children and I read to them at night. Long chapters don't work for me as I tend to fall asleep. Short chapters keep me awake and push me on to read the next one. I've found short chapters work for many readers. People tend to race through these books partly because each chapter pulls you along, or pushes you forward.

I hadn't read much crime fiction before writing Eeny Meeny, but since I've written these two books, I've read quite a lot of it. I discovered it's a technique used by James Patterson and other crime writers. The final line of each chapter just sort of pushes you into the next one.

Is that why nearly every chapter ends with a cliffhanger?
Of course. You want to make it impossible for people to put the book down. I love getting feedback from readers who complain they've ignored the housework, or didn't get a good night's sleep--all because they just had to keep reading one more chapter.

While your novels could be labelled police procedurals, there's a great deal of character development in Helen Grace. Talk about the importance of this.
I wanted to create a character who has been in a dark place when you first meet her. Most detective tropes involve a failed marriage or a drinking problem. Scouting around for inspiration, I read The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo series. I loved Lisbeth Salander--a very strong and courageous woman with a very unusual lifestyle. She was the inspiration for Helen Grace, who is a more grownup version. I wanted to start her off in the first book in a very interesting corner and give her a long journey over the course of a number of books. I think of Sisyphus because Helen is always rolling a boulder to the top of a hill, seeking some form of redemption--hence, her name, Grace--but whenever she gets near the top, the boulder rolls right back down again. I view her as formidable, admirable, but a cursed figure.

Do you refer to actual police cases as sources for your novels?
Not often. Mostly, I dream it all up.

Eeny Meeny was a fun idea that derived from our competition culture--reality shows like Big Brother or Survivor. Pop Goes the Weasel was a desire to give prostitutes their moment in the sun, because they're always the victims, in both real life and in crime fiction.

Very occasionally, I'll use a real life case, but for the most part, I dream up these dark stories.

Do you outline your novels or fly by the seat of your pants?
Very much the former. I think it comes from my TV background. Whenever you do a TV script, you do it scene-by-scene before you start. I do the same thing with the novels. I plot out exactly what happens in each chapter before I write down a word. I love having that roadmap. I can deviate from it if I want, but it gives the story a backbone. I spend more time planning a novel than actually writing it. I hate reading a novel where the ending is not worth the time invested. Some writers just cobble together something to conclude the book, but I think that's unfair and frustrating for a reader. So, I plan it all out in advance. Sometimes, I'll start at the end and work my way back, so I know the skeletal structure of the book is sound.

Who are your literary influences?
In terms of crime novels, I particularly love Thomas Harris. I think Silence of the Lambs and Red Dragon are flawless crime novels. Going a bit farther back, Patricia Highsmith's novels are great. Because she was such a misanthrope, she created a world filled with fallen characters.

Who are the filmmakers you most admire?
As a kid, I was a fan of Woody Allen. Subsequently, I would say it's David Fincher. I think Seven was a wonderful film. I really admire his work on the American version of House of Cards featuring Kevin Spacey. I guess I have a tendency toward the noir. I like thrillers and dark characters.

You're hosting a dinner party and can invite five people, living or dead, from any walk of life. Who would they be?
First, I'd definitely invite Oscar Wilde for his insanely scandalous life. I'd also ask Evelyn Waugh to attend because he was a fantastic drinker... he really loved his booze. I think Churchill would be quite entertaining. I'd like to talk to Dickens; and I'd invite Dorothy Parker who would lend a touch of her acerbic levity to the gathering.

Congratulations on penning Pop Goes the Weasel, a fast-paced, twisting police procedural and thriller sure to become another bestseller.

Mark Rubinstein's latest novel is The Lovers' Tango.