Meet the man behind the initials of St Albans crime author
PUBLISHED: 15:00 15 March 2016
If you didn't know better, you might think that M. J. Arlidge, the creator of a best-selling series of novels featuring flawed DI Helen Grace, was a woman.
In fact, many fans of Matt Arlidge’s prolific serial thrillers are convinced of that and he often reads on Facebook how much someone has enjoyed ‘her’ book.
That is fine by Matt, 41, a St Albans father of two who produces a new novel in the series featuring DI Grace every six months and admits his books are very spare on biographical details.
Matt has his own TV production company and cut his teeth on EastEnders.
He dovetails his TV work with his thriller writing and has just completed two episodes of Silent Witness. He and a fellow writer have been given the green light on their TV drama Innocent which will hit the screens next year.
His fifth novel Little Boy Blue in a series with playground titles - Eeny Meeny, Pop Goes The Weasel and Liar Liar to name just three - is out this month and he is now comfortably established in the canon of British thriller writers.
Matt said that when he and his agent submitted his first novel Eeny Meeny to his publishers Penguin, it was suggested that he use his initials to keep his name gender neutral to appeal to the many women in publishing and not antagonise those who think only women can write about women.
He was more than happy to go along with it, explaining: “What I really wanted to do is have a barrier between the reader and the story, so little of it was about me. I didn’t want anything diluting the experience of Helen.”
And what a protagonist she is - an Amazonian police officer who rides a motorbike, dresses in leathers and engages in the kind of activity more normally found on the top shelves of newsagents
Helen has what Matt describes as a ‘Gothic’ quality and while her Achilles heel is that she submits herself to punishment in the sado-masochistic sense, it is non sexual and as he points out, matches her background and the terrible experiences of her childhood.
Matt wanted a female protagonist from the outset. “I find women more interesting than men, they are more complex and less predictable. Life is still harder for women.”
He went on: “Helen is a kick-ass character who is pretty flawed but doesn’t betray her weakness to other people and they respond to her.”
In his mind, he sees Helen as a character in the mould of Sisyphus, the Greek mythological king who was punished by the Gods for his arrogance by forever pushing a boulder uphill and then watching it roll down again.
Unlike TV where it is all about visuality, he has no firm idea in his head about Helen’s appearance and is fascinated by the fact that at book events, readers argue for her being blonde, brunette or redhead.
He said: “It is more her spirit that I know. With me it is predicting how she will react to things. She is quite a strong, single-minded character.”
The books, all of which are stand alone but maybe less so with Little Boy Blue which ends on a cliffhanger (the next one, Hide and Seek, is ready to go) are set in Southampton and you could be forgiven for thinking Matt must have lived there at one time.
But he hasn’t and settled on it because he likes ports and their mystique. He now spends a lot of time wandering around a city which he feels fits with Helen. “It has a rich history and a fractured identity. Like Helen it has suffered but it is still going strong.”
Ironically he, wife Jennie and their children now live in a city. Like many other Londoners in the past decade, they moved from Kilburn to St Albans, attracted by the chance to buy a house and send the children to good schools.
But there is more to it than that, Matt said: “St Albans is great because it has got a genuine community feeling and great history. We have kids now and like everyone at Christmas we go to the St Albans panto. It may be a commuter town but it is one with real history and identity.”
Little Boy Blue is published in hardback and eBook this week.