This post will include SPOILERS because frankly, I am disgusted enough (due to points mentioned in the content note below) not to care if I spoil it for anyone else.
Content note: novel includes transphobic, whorephobic and kinkphobic tropes; one of the themes is child abuse.
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So a few days ago I tweeted that I was sad that any time I see a reference to BDSM in mainstream fiction, I brace myself. A couple of days after that I tweeted, “That moment when you throw a book in anger, then remember it’s a library book & hope you didn’t damage it”. I was, of course, talking about the same book in both cases.
The book in question is M. J. Arlidge’s “Eeny Meeny”. Ultimately, the only reason I read it to the end was so that I could be confident in writing this review.
Let’s get the positives out the way first: the reasons I wanted to read it in the first place, and the reasons why I found myself wanting it to be good.
The concept in the blurb sounded really good. A little bit like a repetition of the original Saw movie, but it looked like an interesting spin on the idea and an intriguing approach to the serial killer genre. When I saw it in the supermarket charts I decided I wouldn’t buy but borrow from the library. However, I made a special note to seek it out. The way it plays out is rather like Knots and Crosses, in that the seemingly random crimes are actually all about the lead investigator all along (I think I guessed this “twist” by the second murder), but again, it’s well-executed.
The author biography reveals that Arlidge is an experienced writer for television and, with that in mind, certain features make a lot of sense. The first is that it is tightly plotted. Whatever else may be wrong with the book, the plot is devised carefully and competently. It’s one reason why I remained engaged even after wanting to throw it across the room.
I found myself starting to like the central character, DI Helen Grace, and wanting to like her more. She made a solid lead and in some of her early scenes seemed like she might just be the saving grace (see what I did there?) for the novel. Tough but caring, and (most of the time) well-written.
And that’s pretty much it for positives.
I felt that the writing style was weak, and as tight as the plot was, its pacing was all wonky. These facts make sense when thinking that the author is used to writing for the screen: things that take only a short space of time on screen can take much longer on the page, and vice versa, so that a plot that rattles along on television may not work in the less visual medium of a novel, and vice versa. Arlidge occasionally seems to struggle to make the words do what he wants them to, creating bitty or inelegant forms that seemed to echo instructions to a director rather than giving a reader the basis.
On the flipside of this, Arlidge seems to have taken the scope that a novel provides for peering into a character’s mind and gone overboard with it. It’s obviously not something available to the screenwriter: if you can’t see it on the screen then it isn’t a part of the story. Indeed, the “How To Write” books I’ve read all advise authors to think more like screenwriters in this regard: “show, don’t tell”. A few times, Arlidge has characters drift off into reveries about their backstory that have no relevance to the plot whatsoever.
Which is where we get to those pesky little social justice issues around trans* folk, sex workers, and kinksters. The points that made me throw this book in anger. The points that I was bracing myself against.
To some extent, I wanted to give Arlidge some slack because it’s a police drama and the police aren’t always known for their social justice credentials. They often, when real police officers are seen on camera talking about their experiences, fail to show much compassion for certain groups such as sex workers. Since this is told largely from the POV of a police department, maybe Arlidge is just staying true to the characters by reporting their perspective in the narrative? It doesn’t make it okay that cops think like that, but maybe.
This all falls down when you start getting into backstories, though. Sex workers, it seems, are all from broken homes or bad backgrounds. Kinky people are trauma survivors or similarly from broken homes. The trans character is a sex worker who apparently chose to “become a woman” after being gang raped as a rent boy. FFS, Arlidge! That whole sequence in the book is characterised by appalling misgendering (e.g. “‘She may have been well stacked and all that, but there’s no doubt she was a chap'”). Again, I could almost let it go because police being insensitive and all that, but then you get the clinic where the vaginoplasty was performed doing the same thing: “‘A young man in his mid-twenties came to us five years ago. He’d obviously been through a bad time, physically and mentally.'”
I may have already thrown the book before I got to that little detail. I was livid by this stage.
As if that’s not enough, as part of the kink element, we have a male proDom (consistently called a “dominator”, presumably as the male form of “dominatrix” – but a term I have never heard or seen used in the kink community) being told, “You’re a bloody whore, for God’s sake. You’re comfortable with whatever I pay you to do.” The person who utters these rape-myth whorephobic words? DI Helen Grace.
You see, Helen Grace comes from a background of trauma and child abuse. Therefore, she’s a masochist who hates herself and pays someone to punish her severely – even beyond what that someone is comfortable with. (Could someone fetch my eyes? I seem to have rolled them somewhat aggressively there and they got away.)
Her “dominator” muses for a while (see above) about how he became a Dom:
Born to parents who never rally wanted children, Jake had been palmed off on countless grannies and aunties – each as uninterested as the rest – until eventually entering the merry-go-round of foster care. He had suffered along the way – not in a bad way – but it’s hard to be unloved and not feel pain. Learning to control and use that pain had been the making of him, a way of managing and expiating his demons in ways that excited him and others. He’d tried the submissive route and after he got over his initial fear had enjoyed it well enough, but in his heart of hearts he liked to be in control.
None of this has any relevance whatsoever to the plot, or the character, or anything. Arlidge just drops that in there because – who the fuck knows why? And it’s the same old tired, lazy, kinkphobic myth about how we’re all damaged people making damaged choices.
The thing is, I get the feeling Arlidge thinks he’s being kink-inclusive and getting it right: there’s the lip-service (so to speak) to trust, safewords, informed consent, and the things that the community holds dear in its self-justification. But then there’s these negative stereotypes being repeated.
The thing is, Jake doesn’t need to be a sex worker for his role in the story, and Helen doesn’t need to be an abusive client (she’s definitely an abusive client, as written – even if she does have a bottoming role). They could be friends in the kink community who know each other and have casual play when she needs it, who have an actual relationship on that level. This could have been a fantastic, positive expression of kink as a healing process.
It’s heavily plot-relevant that Helen Grace is a survivor of abusive parents. As I’ve written before, it actually is part of the life story of some kinky folks that they are survivors, and that’s okay. There’s also a key element in the story that Helen’s masochism is linked to having a bad day at work. Her colleague wonders about her:
She’d been in tears at the house, which had shocked everyone, but now she was back to her usual elusive self. He didn’t think she was a primal screamer, he’d never seen her at the gym, she had no boyfriend, husband or children, so what was her release?
The reader is left to deduce that the answer is her masochistic sessions with Jake.
I think a lot of Submissives and masochists relate to the idea of BDSM as a release from the stresses of work and life. It would have been so easy to build a healthy BDSM relationship around this need, and present Helen as a (far too rare) positive example of BDSM bottom using her kink to let go. Put a healthy (but not necessarily romantic – pure “no strings attached” or “kinky fuckbuddies”) relationship around that trope and, while not perfect, it’s at least something that actual kinksters can relate to and warm to. If these scenes are added to give “depth” to Helen’s character, then in fact making her an abusive client is just lazy and shallow. The realistic kink relationship would have been so much better.
Just to compound the errors, later in the book Jake starts to warm to this abusive client and (apparently) starts to fall in love with her or want a “deeper relationship”. Which is just… no. After he breaks it off the first time (because of that abusive behaviour), if he had any integrity whatsoever, he should have put her on a list of “bad dates”. Instead, she comes back and begs for a second chance and he “realized for the first time that she needed him. To reject her would be cruel and dangerous.” Urgh!
I’m pretty sure if I played bingo, I’d be a very happy chappy right now.
[NB: I don’t know any male proDoms either online or in r/l so it may very well be that Jake is an accurate representation; it may be that Arlidge does know someone and Jake is based on that person’s background. But overall, I am entirely sceptical about his research and basis for the character.]
While we’re on the subject of lazy tropes, a few points that cropped up outside of the representational issues just discussed:
First, OMG the genre-blindness of some of these characters.
Second, “Prime suspect becomes the next victim” – bonus points for “prime suspect is a Journo-type researching the case for lurid book tie-in”, double bonus-points for “journo-type is a therapist with pop-psychology take on the case”
Third, “police corruption OMG” – bonus points for, “It’s the Chief all along!” double bonus points for “falsely accusing the closest colleague”.
At times, this felt like a crime thriller-by-numbers, with some clunky shortcuts that you can get away with in television because viewers accept the shorthand form to get the story moving but when you read enough of these books, dear God, it gets noticeable!
I really wanted to like this book. It has so much potential – I think I would have fallen in love with it if Arlidge had written the kink scenes the way I suggest above (and left out the problematic language about trans* folk and sex workers). Instead, its positive points are buried under a pile of lazy writing, negative stereotypes and poor pacing. It feels more like a first draft than a finished product.