M. J. Arlidge on DI Helen Grace

'Utterly fearless, totally committed': the crime writer gives us an insight into the mind of his crime-fighting heroine

MJ Arlidge

'A magnet for serial killers'

Helen Grace is a woman with a hefty caseload. A Detective Inspector at Southampton Central police station, she runs the Major Incident Team, grappling with murders, rapes, trafficking and more besides. Would that it were that simple, though – more often that not the cases that land on her desk are macabre, surprising and devilishly complicated.

Helen is a magnet for serial killers. Sometimes there’s a personal connection, sometimes it’s just bad luck, but she’s fast becoming an expert at chasing down these relentless and devious criminals. This often comes at a huge personal cost – emotionally, psychologically, but especially physically. Helen has been seriously injured on more than one occasion in the pursuit of justice. This is an occupational hazard, but tells you something about Helen’s character. She is utterly fearless, totally committed and never gives up. The higher the stakes, the harder she fights.

She is backed up by a great team at Southampton Central – most notably her loyal comrade in arms DC Charlie Brooks – and she is the first to admit that she couldn’t function without them. And yet there is something special about Helen. She is strong, decisive, has a razor sharp brain and thinks nothing of her own safety in the heat of battle – which makes her a dangerous adversary.

A double-edged sword

But this strength also reveals her greatest weakness. She is fearless because she has no one waiting at home for her. She is a woman without connections, without next of kin to worry about her. Most of the time she’s fine with this, given her dark family history she is afraid of creating strong ties with people, but sometimes her isolation bites and it’s then that she resorts to some extra curricular therapy.

Helen is a masochist. This started in her teens, during her unhappy years in the care system, and ever since then Helen has used pain as a way of managing her emotions. She knows it’s damaging, counter-productive and would never advise anyone else to follow the same path, but it’s her survival mechanism. She just doesn’t know any other way. So she pays others to beat her dark thoughts from her. And while she still has a role to play, a job to do, she will do whatever she has to do to keep functioning. Unusual it may be, but she would have gone under a long time ago had she not found a way to survive.

She has had lovers in the past – and no doubt will again – but they tend to be ships that pass in the night. They ask too many questions and many of them seem determined to tame a woman who has always been proudly, defiantly self-sufficient. She is never short of admirers – this fortysomething DI in her biking leathers is an attractive package – but you fear that none of them will last the course. Because Helen is seeking something that none of them can offer – absolution. She is a 21st-century Sisyphus who fears – who knows – that the boulder will always roll back down the hill.

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