Entry Island by Peter May

“The blood is strong.”

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

He crouches down to touch the earth, and in doing so feels a direct connection with history, communing with ghosts, a ghost himself haunting his own past. And yet not his past. He closes his eyes and imagines how it was, how it felt, knowing that this is where it all began, in another age, in someone else’s life.

entry islandIn the tiny community of Entry Island in the Gulf of St Lawrence, a man has been brutally murdered. The local police don’t have the expertise to investigate such a serious crime, so the Quebec Sûreté send a team to the island. Unusually for this French-speaking province, the islanders are English-speaking, so his Scottish descent means that Detective Sime Mackenzie is included in the team to carry out interviews. But when Sime (pronounced Sheem) meets Kirsty Cowell, the wife of the victim and the chief suspect, he is struck with an unshakeable feeling that he knows her…although they have never met.

Peter May has been a long-term favourite of mine. As scriptwriter and producer, he was involved in some of the best television produced in Scotland during the ‘80s and ‘90s, before returning to his original sphere as a novelist. He has produced three main series of novels since then – his China thrillers, the Enzo Files set in France and most recently the Lewis Trilogy. Always with a steady following, he rocketed into the limelight when the Richard and Judy Bookclub (the UK equivalent of Oprah) picked The Blackhouse, the first of the Lewis books. (An overnight success story that only took half a lifetime to achieve!)

May’s books are always meticulously researched with a very strong sense of place. But since he started writing about Lewis this strength has taken on an extra layer – it feels as if he is really now writing with his heart as well as his head. He spent a good deal of time on Lewis while producing a Gaelic-language drama serial, Machair, and he seems to have absorbed the landscape and the community of this remote and weather-beaten island until it has become an integral part of him. As a result, the Lewis Trilogy stood head and shoulders above his previous work, adding a feeling of emotional connection that had perhaps been absent in the previous series. I have been saying for the last few years that the trilogy was his best work. Until now…

Blackhouse, Isle of Lewis Photo credit: Robert Harding
Blackhouse, Isle of Lewis
Photo credit: Robert Harding

Like the Lewis Trilogy, Entry Island has a double time-line – the present day investigation set in Canada, and a historical storyline set on Lewis. Sime, struggling with severe insomnia after the break-up of his marriage, begins to have vivid dreams about stories he was told as a child, of the life of his ancestor, also called Sime, on Lewis – dreams that seem to be connected in some way with his feelings of recognition for Kirsty. Through the original Sime’s stories, we are given an account of the hand-to-mouth existence of the crofters, fishing and farming their tiny plots of land with barely enough to sustain their families. We see the very different life lived by the landlords – English-speakers in these Gaelic communities. And Sime tells us about the Highland Clearances – the barbarous and brutal dispossession of crofters already weakened by the potato famine to make way for more profitable sheep-farming. There is a feeling of biting anger in May’s writing as he allows Sime to describe the inhumanity of this scar on British history – a history that led to the destruction of communities and a whole way of life, and to the involuntary exile of thousands of Highland Scots to the North American colonies, sent with nothing, to fend as best they could in the New World, if they survived the horrors of the voyage.

“And then I catch sight of the pitiful figure of old blind Calum staggering about, his Glengarry trampled in the mud, arms raised to shield himself from blows he cannot see. A man who once fought for Britain at the Battle of Waterloo. Struck down now by a vicious blow from a young man not even born when Calum was fighting for his freedom.”

Peter May
Peter May

As the book progresses, we discover why these childhood memories have been awakened for the present-day Sime and gradually the links between the two time-lines become clearer. The present-day story provides some contrast and relief from the bleakness of the past, and for me present-day Sime is the most filled-out and believable character May has written. The quality of the descriptive writing is first-class and, though by coincidence both the quotes I have chosen are present tense, most of the book is in fact written in the past tense. The plotting of the murder and investigation is well done and it wasn’t till near the end that I began to get an inkling of the solution – a solution that I found satisfying on every level.

In my opinion, this is the best book May has ever written and one of the best crime novels I have read – with an authenticity and depth of emotion that reduced this sentimental lowland Scot to tears on more than one occasion. Hard for me to be completely objective about it, but I believe it will be just as effective for non-Scots, who are perhaps not familiar with this small part of history, and I’m very much looking forward to seeing how it gets reviewed elsewhere. Highly recommended.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Quercus.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

27 thoughts on “Entry Island by Peter May

  1. Historical fiction, then? The professor loves historical fiction. Great review. If Mr. May can move you in his writing, then he is a very effective writer, for sure.

    Not surprisingly, the professor had never heard of him. See how lost I would be without FEF?

  2. If this one is better than the Lewis Trilogy it must be very good indeed. Looking forward to reading it – spurred on by your review.

  3. FictionFan – So nice to hear that the Lewis trilogy wasn’t a one-off.. well, you know what I mean. May has so much talent, and you’re right; he’s especially skilled at creating atmosphere and depicting location. An excellent review as ever.

    • Thanks, Margot! He seems to have struck gold with the Lewis connection and, although this one is a standalone, it has the same structure of past & present. A really great read!

  4. Cast your runes before this non-Scot, FF and predict its appeal. – some of what you said had me sniffing the wind, rattling my frogs legs and cricket carapaces but i couldn’t clearly decipher the signs…a verdict, o bookie soothsayer!

    • I was asking myself if this was one for you and I really think it is. You might not find the present day stuff so much to your taste (not gruesome or anything, but just crime) but I think you’d love the historical stuff and that’s the bulk of the book. There’s an almost but not quite mystical edge to it – a hint of the Highland seer… Of all May’s books, this is the one I’d most think you’d like. Go for it! (Available on NG)

      • Oh – I replied, it vanished, but the gist is…….thanks, have asked, and it is now in the lap of the NG gods. Who are a MUCH nicer breed of god, and much more sensible, than the Vine gods

        • I’ll keep my fingers crossed, but it appears from the reaction that this is the first review of the book, so I imagine that means not many people have requested it – so hopefully they’ll reply quickly. 🙂

    • Really? What was it about them that you didn’t like? The main difference I think is that he goes further back in time in this one, so the historical/present day links are more separated. The crime element itself isn’t gruesome or terribly graphic, but some of the history is quite strong.

  5. Thanks for the great review, I still have to read the second and third book in the trilogy! Loved the first. Looks like this will be one I will definitely be adding to the pile as well.

    • I loved The Blackhouse too, but thought both of the others were better…and now this one even better again! Wish I still had them all to read for the first time – enjoy! 😀

    • I don’t understand why there’s always a delay with May’s books – most books come out at the same time on both sides of the Atlantic these days. I think it’s time he had words with the publisher…

      However you get hold of it, though, I’m sure you’ll love it! 😀

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