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Book Review: Down to the woods by M J Arlidge

I have to start by saying: DI Helen Grace was the the first ‘real’ detective series I started reading. I fell in absolute love with MJ Arlidge’s style and characters, so despite finding some new awesome series in Robert Bryndza’s DI Erika Foster and Angela Marsons’ DI Kim Stone – Helen Grace will always hold a special place in my heart!

Down to the woods by M J Arlidge

Genre: Fiction/Crime Fiction/Crime, Thriller & Mystery

BUG Rating: 4/5

Overall: Another great book in the Helen Grace Series by MJ Arlidge. The storyline/case to follow was brutal, and I loved it, it really played on my mind at night and made me question my upcoming camping trip! Helen’s character has at last evolved/is evolving, which is great, she’s more rounded and less reckless. Strong relationships are ever present with her side kick Charlie, although both of them are still haunted somewhat, and self-blaming for the loss of their ‘friend’ and colleague in the last instalment. Ever present the twists and turns in M J Alridge’s style, keeping us guessing until the end. I did however, find the book a bit slower paced than his previous ones. No biggie – my love for Helen Grace’s character means I am willing to accept for this once, and hope it picks up and back to the usual fast paced, ‘completely unable to put it down’ books next time.

 The last few months had been so dark, so challenging, but finally the sun was beginning to shine on them, promising better things for the future. It was a timely reminder that amid all the death and suffering, there is always life.

Plot:

There is a sickness in the forest. First, it was the wild horses. Now it’s innocent men and women, hunted down and murdered by a faceless figure. Lost in the darkness, they try to flee, they try to hide. In desperation, they call out for help. But there is no one to hear their cries here…

DI Helen Grace must face down a new nightmare. The arrow-ridden victims hang from the New Forest’s ancient oaks, like pieces of strange fruit. Why are helpless holidaymakers being targeted in peak camping season? And what do their murders signify? Is a psychopath stalking the forest? Is there an occult element to the killings? Could the murders even be an offering to the Forest itself? Helen must walk into the darkness to discover the truth behind her most challenging, most macabre case yet.


I actually feel bad for Helen Grace – M.J. Arlidge never gives her an easy ride – her life is regularly put in danger and she never makes it through a case unharmed (physically or emotionally) and this case is no exception. Following his usual style, the book is full of false starts, frustrations and dead ends as Grace is on the trail of another sadistic killer. 

Grace is called to a crime scene at a New Forest campsite (this book will literally make you question if you will (or should!!) ever go camping again!). Grace arrives at the crime scene – a totally gruesome and elaborate staging of a male corpse hanging from the branches of a tree with crossbow arrows rooted in the body – a scene shocking her whole team. Before the team are able to get too far ahead into the case, the killer strikes again with the same staging and MO, with no obvious links connecting the two victims – all of which is sparking the curiosity of our favourite love/loathe journalist, Emilia Garanita (yes she’s back! And despite really hating her, and her cunning ways to infiltrate the case/obtain information, the books just would not be the same without her). 

Without revealing too much, as you really need to read it for yourself .. The story then follows the Major Incident Team throughout the investigation, with the many twists and turns and of course Alridge’s usual use of red herrings. Written from mainly Helen’s point of view – who seems to be changed, or in the process of changing. She is far more ‘settled’ in this book, less haunted by her past, and she may have become slightly less impulsive and irrational! Could this be due to the traumatic events of her previous case and lost team member? Maybe … Or it could be, her trusted mentor and friend Superintendent Grace Simmons is temporarily in charge of the MIT, thus providing much needed stability and grounding Helen has lacked previously – also maybe. Whichever it is, I am liking it, it’s really turning Helen into a well-rounded and credible/relatable character.

A few other main characters also get to lead the story, each facing their own turmoil– Charlie for example, is struggling with her work life balance, and her young daughter’s night terrors, and husband Steve’s life plans, which she isn’t quite ready to commit to – everything is beginning to take its toll. I also want to call out – I love the dynamics between Helen and Charlie, and I have really enjoyed seeing their relationship deepen and strengthen throughout the series. 

There is also the introduction of the new team member, DS Joseph Hudson, who is desperately trying to impress Helen (his first attempt wasn’t very successful – and somewhat funny!). There is definitely something interesting about him – secrets? Whether it’s good or bad, time will tell. Could he be Helen’s saving Grace? Is he what she needs to continue to evolve….he’s definitely going to make her life interesting… Let’s see, I am looking forward to seeing how their relationship pans out.

The book was an excellent read, with short chapters, which to be honest is just how I like it … Most of them ending with a cliff-hangers, making it hard to put the book down. Where it lost its star for me was due to the pace feeling a little slower than his previous books. I can’t quite put my finger on what it was, there was some repetition, it could have been that. However, I still really enjoyed it, and Helen Grace remains one of my favourite reads and I am very much looking forward to finding out what is next in store for her – M J Alridge if you read this – Please don’t leave it so long!

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