Today’s guest blog is by M(atthew) J Arlidge. He has worked in television for the last fifteen years, specialising in high end drama production. In the last five years Arlidge has produced a number of prime-time crime serials for ITV, including Torn, The Little House and most recently Undeniable which was broadcast in spring 2014. He is currently writing for Silent Witness.
Prostitutes are easy targets. For centuries these vulnerable and isolated women have been the targeted by violent men who view them as worthless, sinful and ripe for destruction. Jack the Ripper was not the first and sadly the Suffolk Strangler won’t be the last. In crime fiction, the same is true – all too often prostitutes are the victims of murderous and perverted desire. The eviscerated prostitute found in the gutter is a staple of both books and TV.
Pop Goes the Weasel, the second novel in the DI Helen Grace series, is my response to this phenomenon. This is the novel where all those fictional prostitutes get their own back. It opens on the backstreets of Southampton’s real life red light district – a deserted industrial estate with not a red bulb in sight – and focuses on a man with depraved intent who gets his comeuppance in spectacular style at the hands of a young prostitute. I’m not guilty of any spoilers here; as it is clear from very early on that Helen and her team at Southampton Central are chasing a serial-killing prostitute. And that’s kind of the point. I felt it was time to play the reverse of the norm and to “enjoy” the boot being on the other foot for once.
Climbing inside the story, I found that the killer’s crimes threw up some interesting points about how we view men and women. We have a tendency to regard prostitutes as less than human, as somehow deserving of their fate. But we are far less quick to judge – or even talk about - the men who pay for sex. The men who abuse and mistreat prostitutes on a daily basis. So it proves in Pop Goes the Weasel, as the families of the murdered men go to great lengths to deny that their husbands, fathers, lovers would ever pay for sex. Deep in denial, they invent all sorts of excuses for their presence in the backstreets of Southampton – the innocent victims of muggings, helping out the unfortunate – as part of a concerted effort to defend “their men”. Do women receive the same treatment either in this sphere or more widely in society?
The answer of course is no, whether it be in the realm of prostitution – Stephen Butchard’s brilliant BBC drama Five Daughters about the Suffolk victims a notable exception – or more generally in life. Society loves judging women in a way they never would men. More than that, they love judging women and finding them wanting. Whether it’s for being too sexually provocative, or not being attractive enough. Or for being a bad Mum, or for lacking ambition. For all the progress that has been made in promoting gender equality in recent years, we are still addicted to belittling women and making life as hard as possible for them. People often ask me why I - a man last time I checked – have a female protagonist and write novels that are dominated by women. It might be because I find them more complex and interesting than men, but it’s principally because life is much harder for women and you always want to throw as many rocks as possible at your characters. It’s no accident that the killers in Eeny Meeny (the first Helen Grace novel) and Pop Goes the Weasel are both women – nor that they are being hunted by female adversaries. Society puts huge pressure on women every day of the week and it’s endlessly interesting to see how people react when that pressure becomes too great. Some give in, some fight back. The killer at the heart of Pop Goes the Weasel belongs in the latter category. In her own depraved way, she’s trying to settle the score. Finally, someone is sticking it to the man.
Pop Goes the Weasel
The body of a middle-aged man is discovered in Southampton's red light district - horrifically mutilated, with his heart removed. Hours later - and barely cold - the heart arrives with his wife and children by courier. A pattern emerges when another male victim is found dead and eviscerated, his heart delivered soon afterwards. The media call it Jack the Ripper in reverse; revenge against the men who lead sordid double lives visiting prostitutes. For Grace, only one thing is certain: there's a vicious serial-killer at large who must be halted at all costs . . .
Pop Goes the Weasel is published in paperback by Penguin and is out now.
You can follow MJ Arlidge on Twitter @mjarlidge