Liar Liar (Helen Grace #4), by M. J. Arlidge

Eight stars

The Helen Grace series continues to impress as Arlidge tackles yet another angle of the psychological thriller. Fire is the most elusive killer, as unpredictable as it is destructive. Sixteen months after her previous serial killer case, DI Helen Grace can only watch the horizon as Southhampton neighbourhoods burn, the black smoke billowing up and leaving eerie calling cards. Three simultaneous fires destroy parts of the city, including a family residence. As Grace and the team work in conjunction with the local fire brigade, the fallout of the blaze claims the life of one and a second clings to life. Grace is determined to find the arsonist and charge them with murder. However, the fire destroys much, including any evidence that might lead Grace towards finding a killer. After three more fires occur the following night, it becomes clear that there are two peripheral fires to distract the authorities and a central blaze, meant to kill, which it does as another residence is targeted and its inhabitant perishes. An eyewitness sighting leads Grace to pull someone into custody, which divides the police and fire teams when they must work together to trap this firebug. Tensions are high and no one can effectively handle the city that teeters on the edge. Grace is also working with a new Detective Superintendent, her third since the series began, and must tailor her work style to accommodate a new managerial approach. The stress of the job forces Grace to continue her unorthodox personal activities, which she hopes to keep away from the press and public eye. A third set of fires creates an alibi for some seen as potential suspects and opens up some new avenues with the discovery of a blog site, whose writer expresses an interest in the fires that is more than passing. Grace scrambles to put it all together while trying to prevent more murders and keep her ever-morphing team together. With an arsonist on the loose, it will only take one spark to give Grace the lead she needs, but all could go up in smoke if she shows her hand too soon. Perhaps the best of the series to date, Arlidge offers readers a wonderful story over which they can obsess.

There is no doubt that Arlidge has mastered the art of the psychological thriller, though does so from as many angles as possible. It would be easy to use the same approach, sadistic killer leaving bodies and awaiting the authorities to catch them, but this cookie cutter approach seems not to interest the author as he pushes the envelope with each publication. The obsessions that fill each novel are not strictly sexual gratification for the unknown subject, but a means of enacting some form of revenge over the helpless victims. This fresh angle contrasts nicely with a changing collection of characters to keep the reader always guessing and forced to adapt to new storylines. Changes both to the team and their overseer makes the dynamic ever-changing, which has its advantages and downsides as well. Small developments in the characters’ backstories helps balance out the horrors that fill each short chapter and allows the reader to feel better connected to the larger series. DI Helen Grace continues to evolve in both aspects of her life, showing sides that can only help flesh-out the character for the series reader. She has remained a staple in the series and someone on whom the reader can rely. I can only hope that Arlidge keeps the quick pace exemplified in the series as he writes more in this series. I am always shocked to see where he takes things, never sure what might occur or how to react.

Kudos, Mr. Arlidge for yet another entertaining piece, as you forge ahead and keep Helen Grace from becoming too predictable. That said, it is the psychological approach that lures the hapless reader.