A Gift for Dying, by M.J. Arlidge

Eight stars

While he has been highly successful with his Helen Grace series, M.J. Arlidge branches out here with a standalone thriller that will leave readers wondering throughout. Kassandra ‘Kassie’ Wojcek may appear to be like any other teenager around Chicago, but she has a secret ability that can only be described as eerie. Able to predict how someone will die and when, Kassie sees this premonition as something prophetic, though she has no ability to stop it happening. When a lawyer with whom Kassie had been arguing turns up dead, the video evidence points at Kassie. Enter CPD Detective Gabrielle Grey, who begins an investigation into the teen, but garners little. Kassie is sent to see forensic psychologist Dr. Adam Brandt, who hears her story and is not entirely convinced. However, there is something about her determination and openness that leads Brandt to give her the benefit of the doubt. Helping to keep Kassie’s secret, Brandt finds his walls coming down, even as Kassie predicts another victim and is spot on. When Detective Grey catches the second murder and discovers that Kassie is again one of the last people to have seen the victim, her radar begins pinging anew. However, lurking in the shadows of Chicago is the real killer, someone who earns the moniker ‘The Chicago Butcher’. Will Kassie be able to help locate him before he kills again and why are all the victims tied to her in some way? It’s all hands on deck to solve this crime, though Kassie’s premonitions may not be enough. A wonderfully complex thriller that Arlidge has constructed for his fans. Dark and eerie, with just a touch of the supernatural. Fans of slowly evolving thrillers will surely want to get their hands on this one.

I have long been a fan of M.J. Arlidge and his work, which takes thriller writing to a new level. Balancing the art of great storytelling with the darker side of a depraved antagonist, Arlidge is able to lure his readers in from the outset while toying with them as the story evolves. The two-pronged story allows the reader the dual protagonist. Kassie Wojcek proves to be as troubled a teen as can be, with drug and emotional abuse, as well as a temper to match. She seeks to isolate herself from others repeatedly, which ends up being baffling when one notices her attempts to warn the victims throughout the piece. That she forges a relationship with Dr. Adam Brandt is all the more amuse, creating a loose parental figure out of him, particularly when Kassie’s own mother leaves her at one point in the narrative. Brandt must also struggle as he comes to terms with balancing his personal and professional lives. It takes a tragedy to help sober him up to reality’s harsh bite and keeps him in a state of perpetual confusion. However, the Kassie-Brandt relationship serves to level them both out and keeps the story fresh throughout. One might also look to Gabrielle Grey as a protagonist, though the investigation theme remains rooted in the background throughout most of the novel. The investigation seems almost an afterthought, thereby turning Gabrielle Grey into an apparent lesser character. However, the premise of the plot, that there is a killer that must be apprehended, contradicts this at its core. The story was quite strong and highly unique in its approach, keeping the reader guessing throughout. What does Kassie know and how did she acquire it? What tie does she have to the Chicago Butcher? Where do the criminal and psychological aspects of the novel mesh together and how strong do they make the overall product? Arlidge is a master at his craft and, save for a few irritants that I found—setting a story in America, but having his characters and narrator use British slang—the story was stellar. That this is a one-off novel serves Arlidge well to sell his wares and hopefully capture new fans who will devour the Helen Grace novels in short order.

Kudos, Mr. Arlidge, for a wonderful standalone novel. I have missed Helen Grace, but this helped smooth things over as I wait.

A Book for All Seasons, a different sort of Book Challenge: https://www.goodreads.com/group/show/248185-a-book-for-all-seasons

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Down to the Woods (DI Helen Grace #8), by M. J. Arlidge

Eight stars

M.J. Arlidge is back with his eighth novel in the Helen Grace series, adding a new layer of thrills in this unique piece. While DI Helen Grace is still trying to piece her life back together after a year of significant changes, she learns that there is a new addition to her Major Incident Team (MIT). DS Joseph Hudson has a great deal of police work under his belt, all across England, but has finally decided on a transfer to Southampton. The team is soon called out to a campsite, where a man has disappeared without a trace. Scouring the surrounding forested area, DI Grace and her team find him hanging from a tree, his organs dangling and embedded with crossbow bolts. Could the killer still be lurking in the forest? This begins a thorough exploration, where one member falls victim to a man who chooses to live way off the grid. It is only pure luck that has DI Grace stumble upon her teammate, saving her from another tragic incident. When a second victim goes missing and is found in the same state, DI Grace knows that this killer has a message and will stop at nothing. Now it’s time to determine if these are random kills or whether there is a connection, as yet unseen. While the MIT works their magic, journalist Emilia Garanita is back to find the scoop of her life. Her past run-ins with DI Grace do not deter her from using her powers of persuasion to get the story to ensure the public is aware of what’s going on. As the case heats up, both DI Grace and Emilia must come to terms with potential changes in their personal lives, both of which could have a significant bearing on the case. Arlidge does it again with a thrilling piece that will have series readers talking. Those who have yet to discover this series ought to take this as a strong recommendation. Do not let their length become a deterrent, as it is jam packed with highly entertaining thrills.

I have long been a fan of M.J. Arlidge and his writing, which has kept me up well into the night. He never seems at a loss for twists in the stories or series to keep the reader captivated, while pushing DI Helen Grace to her limits. It is this unpredictability that keeps the stories from getting stale and allows the series to grow effectively. Helen Grace has been through much in the series and this continues with this novel, in which she finds herself at a crossroads, seeking to better herself while also being highly introspective. She has seen loss and chooses to steer clear of it, though her current position makes that all but impossible. With a strong crew around her as part of the MIT, Grace and her cohort are always interacting on a professional level, with bits of personal aside to keep the subplots moving together effectively. The introduction of DI Joseph Hudson may prove to be an interesting new angle that series fans can chase, as he brings something new and exciting to the game. He, along with the many of the other supporting characters, prove effective in keeping the story intense and force the reader to wonder where things are headed. This has always been a wonderful aspect to Arlidge’s writing, as the characters enrich the story in ways that might not have been predicted. The story is great and, as long as the reader is not seeking anything overly deep, is perfect to push through in a few sittings. Arlidge uses an effective short chapter system that keeps the reader hanging and seeking “a little more”, which turns into late-night reading binges. The book has just what I am looking for and I cannot wait for the next instalment, which is sure to have just as many enticements.

Kudos, Mr. Arlidge, for another winner. Series fans will surely not be disappointed and I can only hope others will commence this series sooner than later.

A Book for All Seasons, a different sort of Book Challenge: https://www.goodreads.com/group/show/248185-a-book-for-all-seasons

Love Me Not (Helen Grace #7), by M.J. Arlidge

Nine stars

M.J. Arlidge has created another wonderful novel to appeal to his large cross-section of fans, many of whom will surely be buzzing about this seventh instalment. Helen Grace is back in a thriller that brings new meaning to ‘race against time’. While driving to work, DI Helen Grace is almost struck by a vehicle and then comes upon an apparent carjacking victim, with a woman shot twice at close range. It is only then that Grace realises that she may have seen the killer, behind the wheel and speeding away from the scene. Calling in her team, DI Grace begins an investigation to determine what happened and who might be behind this heinous act. Meanwhile, the two trench coat clad youths have a second target in mind when they descend upon a chemist’s. A confrontation therein leads to more bloodshed, though the killers are less concerned about being identified when they leave a victim behind. DI Grace remains committed to finding the killers and one clue helps begin the chase, but these killers are a little too conniving and remain one step ahead. As minutes turn to hours, tainted journalist Emilia Garanita refuses to let this breaking news pass her by, especially as she is on a short leash for having led to the frame-up of DI Grace. Finding a way to approach the story from her own vantage point, Emilia is soon caught in the middle of an evolving situation and could become the next victim. When all eyes turn to a local school, DI Grace knows that there is no time to ponder next steps, though sometimes fast responses yield drastic mistakes. Two killers soon become one and the hunt is on, with enough breadcrumbs to predict where the killer will go next. But what is fuelling this one-day rampage and will DI Grace be able to stop it before anyone else gets killed? Arlidge pulls on past emotional character flaws from previous novels to construct a wonderfully dark story that pulls DI Helen Grace in all directions and well past her breaking point. Wonderful for series fans but likely not a good starting point for those curious about Helen Grace. Best to begin where it all started and work up to this explosive culmination. 

I remember binge-reading the Helen Grace series last summer and being enthralled with the build-up of the characters throughout. This story has an interesting aspect to it that differs significantly from the other novels in the series, worth a discussion in a moment. Arlidge continues to develop the post-incarceration Helen Grace, as she is forced to come to terms with the arrest, prison time, and eventual exoneration for being framed. While that is going on, others around her are forced to readjust, seeing Helen in a new light or trying to revert to how they felt before, though the taint of the prison time makes that hard. The style of this book leaves little time for Helen growth, but the killer’s life is explored in the narrative, such that the reader can draw a strong affinity to the hunter-go-hunted. Speaking of the uniqueness of the book, the largest portion is set in a single day, a la Jack Bauer and the ’24’ television series. The race is always on and the story develops over small increments of time. While some readers have bemoaned this approach, I cannot applaud it enough, as the short chapters beg for this small time passage. The narrative remains crisp as minutes pass and the story develops as the reader turns the page (which becomes happily repetitive). Brilliantly crafted and powerful in its delivery, Arlidge challenges the reader to put the book down. I know I failed there, propelling myself through this wonderful thriller with ease.

Kudos, Mr. Arlidge for another wonderful novel. You have differentiated yourself here, turning away from the drawn-out story of a psychopath to a killer seeking to find themselves.

Running Blind (Helen Grace #0.75[?]), by M.J. Arlidge

Eight stars

Before delving into another Helen Grace novel, there stands this short story that packs a punch and offers series fans a look into the early police days of the protagonist. M.J. Arlidge pulls readers back in time once again with this story, which might help show how DCI Helen Grace became such a detail-oriented copper! A man runs through a forested area, dogs chasing after him, and his level of panic increasing. The man is not paying attention when he is struck by a lorry on a fairly busy thoroughfare, causing traffic tie-ups and significant headaches for the local constabulary. A fresh recruit from police training, WPC (Women Police Constable) Helen Grace is rotating through the Traffic Division of the Hampshire Police and attends the scene, taking note of the accident and the state of the victim, who has no identification whatsoever. Discovering her inner sleuth, Grace interacts with the morgue and convinces the pathologist to undertake an autopsy, which reveals some interesting findings. Grace also learns that there is nowhere from which this man could have come, save a small piece of property on the other side of the wooded area. It is a small poultry farm, which soon reveals that the owner has been hiring recent immigrants to complete the arduous tasks. Highly agitated by the arrival of any police presence, Gary Raynor rebuffs many of the questions being asked, but Grace is able to ascertain the identity of the man from one of the other farmhands, Addisu Tesfaye. Working on her off-hours, Grace learns that Addisu was riddled with a form of tuberculosis and that he likely arrived on the shores of England in a less than majestic fashion. Returning to the farm, Grace makes a horrible realisation that will shape how a simple accident investigation may turn into a full-blown major police incident. While her superiors curse Grace and her lack of sticking to the rules, she is lauded for having used her gumption to open up what might be a massive investigation. Definitely a short story/novella, but Arlidge packs a major punch in this story, perfect for series fans or those wanting to learn a little more about Helen Grace before taking the major investment into reading the collection of novels.

I stumbled upon Helen Grace last summer (has it been that long?) and devoured the entire collection up to that point. Reading all the novels that Arlidge had penned and adding some of the short stories that he placed within the series to better shape the Helen Grace character, I soon became addicted and have been waiting for some fresh material. Those who have been on the long journey with Helen Grace will know that she is not one to ‘colour in the lines’, but this story might be the perfect piece of foundation to show where that initiated. Not yet her gritty self, Grace is learning to bend the rules to benefit those who have died, rather than always follow the guidance of her superiors. While there are some periphery characters, the length of the story and the intended focus made Grace the front and centre character to develop. The story flows wonderfully with those short chapters, crisp and leading, for which Arlidge is well known. Even the topic is quite poignant, though is was likely just as popular in 1993, when the story is set. There are wonderful nuances and literary breadcrumbs offered in the piece, giving it the throwback feel that leave the reader feeling they are back in time with the young and still impressionable WPC Helen Grace, who grew into being a maverick who would not rest until the guilty were caught. I had a niggling feeling that I had read this story before. I remembered a number of the opening chapters and scene developments, but I could not find any record of having reviewed them. Now, either the cyber book police found a review I made on a leaked story and erased it, or I became so ensconced in the Helen Grace series that I felt I must have read this piece and crafted the story in one of my dreams. Either way, Helen Grace is back. I am a happy reader and it is time for a full-length novel to keep my heart rate up!

Kudos, Mr. Arlidge for a wonderful piece that taps into those early Helen Grace years. This suits your series fans well, as we are always looking to better understand Helen and some of the ideas you have bouncing around in your head. Keep up the high-calibre writing.