Coffin Road by Peter May

coffin roadBack to the islands…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

A man is washed ashore, exhausted and with no idea of how he got there, or indeed where ‘there’ is. He has lost his memory, but is filled with a sense of dread as if something terrible has happened. As he staggers up the road, he is met by a neighbour who calls him by his name – Neal Maclean – and helps him to the cottage that is apparently his home. But when Neal begins to look for indications of who he is and what he’s doing in this remote cottage on a Hebridean island, he can find no information about himself – even his computer seems to contain no history. But his dog Bran is happy to have him back, and when his other neighbours, Sally and Jon, turn up for a prearranged drink, it appears Sally in particular is a close friend…

This book sees May returning to the Hebrides, this time on Harris rather than Lewis (same island – different ends). However there’s a different feel to this one – Neal is an incomer to the island and doesn’t really get involved much with the local community. The landscape, or rather seascape, plays a huge part though and, as always, May’s sense of place and descriptive writing bring it to life. The bulk of the book is written from Neal’s perspective as he struggles to work out what has happened to him. His sections are in first person present tense which, though still not to my taste, makes some kind of sense here, since Neal is effectively a man without a past, and happily May is skilled enough to avoid the clunkiness that often afflicts present tense writing. The rest of it is written in third person past.

Luskentyre Beach, Isle of Harris
Luskentyre Beach, Isle of Harris

From things that Sally and Jon tell him, Neal discovers he’s apparently writing a book on the story of three lighthouse keepers who mysteriously disappeared many years ago from the otherwise uninhabited Flannan Isles. But he can find no trace of the book, so takes a boat out to the Flannans to see if it triggers any memories. What he finds there shocks him – is it possible he has done something so dreadful that his mind just can’t accept it?

Meantime young Karen Fleming is in Edinburgh, still brooding over the unexplained suicide of her scientist father two years earlier. Carrying a load of guilt because the last words she said to him were angry and untrue, she is becoming determined to learn more about what caused him to end his life. But what she discovers will turn everything she thought she knew on its head, and put both her and Neal Maclean in deadly danger…

Peter May on Lewis
Peter May on Lewis

The writing is up to May’s usual excellent standard and both Neal and Karen are very well drawn, each flawed but likeable in their own way. Neal’s frustration at his memory loss gets even stronger when he fears he might have something to hide and he soon discovers that he’s in danger, but doesn’t know why or from whom. The only thing he has found in his cottage is a map of the island with the old Coffin Road highlighted – the road the islanders used to use to bring their dead for burial amongst the machair. Karen is an intelligent young girl, but headstrong and with the self-centredness of the adolescent. The more people tell her that looking for information about her father could be dangerous, the more determined she becomes. May handles her grief for her father well, letting us see how it has affected her without wallowing mawkishly in it. As the two strands come together towards an explosive finale, we also get to see the action from the perspective of Detective Sergeant George Gunn, whom dedicated fans will doubtless remember with affection from the Lewis trilogy.

The Coffin Road
The Coffin Road

This has much more of a standard thriller format than the last few of May’s books and reminded me in many ways of his early China thrillers. There’s a strong eco-message in the book, a theme May has addressed before, of the dangers of science being exploited for profit untempered by ethics. The plotting is very strong and it’s paced perfectly to keep it gripping all the way through. A couple of times when I thought it was pretty obvious what was about to happen, May showed me that I should know by now never to take him for granted. As always, May’s feel for this Hebridean landscape adds a great deal to the story, and in this one he uses the sea and wild weather of the islands to great effect. (I also enjoyed his brief detour to Balornock in Glasgow – revived happy memories of spending time there in my teen years!) Another great read from May that I think will please the newer fans who came to his work via the Lewis trilogy, while reminding the older fans of just what a good thriller writer he is. Highly recommended!

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

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

72 thoughts on “Coffin Road by Peter May

  1. I think this must be a Sign, FictionFan. I just read another glowing recommendation for this book on another trustworthy blog site. I’m not at all surprised that you liked it as well as you did. As you say, May is so good at evoking place and local culture. And the premise sounds intriguing, too. This one was already on the radar/wish list. I’m going to have to ask a few of my TBR books to squeeze over and make room, I think…

    • Yes, I think this one has to go on the ‘must read’ shelf! But then I always think that about May’s books, as you know. 🙂 I do like when he sets them in Scotland, either the islands or the mainland – it’s an extra layer of fun recognising the places. Not that I’ve ever actually been to the Hebrides…

  2. I’ve loved all his books that I’ve read so far – which basically are the 3 Lewis books. I tried to get one of the China books from the library or even interlibrary loan, but no luck. I think they must be out of print and if they are, I hope someone will resurrect them again. Surely they will with his newer books being so popular. Looking forward to this one whenever we get a chance to have it over here.

    • I’m glad the Lewis books have brought him to a wider audience, and I do think his most recent books have been his best. But I did enjoy the China thrillers very much when I read them years ago, especially the first few. I have a feeling they’ve been made available for Kindle on the back of the success of the Lewsi trilogy – don’t know if you’re a Kindler?

  3. I am kind of curious to read a good example of first person present tense! Although I tend to shy away from memory loss characters scrambling to find their identity/killer/chocolate cake. Been done to death! Like alcoholic detectives seeking baby killers. Am I being harsh?! I think I need more coffee. Sounds like the excellent writing may trump all this. (ugh, did I just use the trump word? I do need coffee…) 😉 Excellent review, as always.

    • Thank you! 🙂 Yes, I have to admit most thrillers share about three basic plots! But I think that’s actually what I like about them – comfort reading. And I’d always be happier to read third person past, even from authors who can handle the dreaded FPPT. I keep hoping the trend will pass. But having said all that, May writes so well, I’m willing to forgive him… 😉 Have you heard that the UK parliament is actually going to debate banning Trump from the UK in response to the petition? Haha! I can’t wait to watch it! They’ll all be so scared in case he does become President…

      • There is NO WAY that man is becoming president, FF! No worries. He’s just so loud, he drowns out all the other reasonable choices. He’s thriving off our reality show culture, sadly enough. (However, in the small chance he makes it, I’m coming to live in your garden. Deal?) btw, I have to watch this parliamentary debate on his banning!

        • Keep telling me that at least once a week – I’m having nightmares! You shall be more than welcome to my garden – though it might be a tight squeeze when 200 million American refugees turn up! The debate is next Monday…

            • Hmm… in truth I’m not a huge fan of salted choc. Santa gave me a wonderful collection of all kinds of esoteric flavours this year and I must admit I came to the conclusion I’m a traditionalist at heart. Not that I would turn any chocolate away, you understand…

      • A wonderful book. Very atmospheric and an I teresting premise. My only concern is the Edinburgh meeting of Neal and Karen/Karen’s mother. Isn’t this a plot hole?

        • I’m really sorry, Ian – it must be two or three years since I read this and I have a shockingly bad memory for plots so I can’t remember the meeting between them. Looking back at my review, I’m guessing I didn’t spot it as a plot hole at the time, but I could easily have missed it…

        • I just finished it. Really enjoyed it. Yes the meeting with him and his wife and daughter and no recognition has me baffled. Did i miss something?

  4. A brilliant review FF – As you say the quality of writing means that there is plenty to satisfy both old fans and new – I never read the China books having stumbled across The Blackhouse on a kindle deal and that was it – I was hooked.

  5. This one sounds more than great, especially since I have been wanting to read more crime novels! I will have to add it to my wishlist; great review!

  6. George Gunn! Now that is an awesome name. A western sheriff’s name, in fact. I’m betting that.

    So, was someone trying to kill him? You know, I’ve always figured it’d be rather cool to wash ashore. Don’t you think?

    • How did you know?! He moseyed on into town, twirling his six-gun and chewing baccy. Looked a bit silly on a Shetland pony though…

      Maybe, maybe not! *inscrutable face* Well… cooler than not being washed ashore, I suppose. I think I’d rather just stay on the boat… but if it’ll help, I’ll be happy to shove you over the side…

      • He should’ve been on a bronco, I say! (Oh, reminds me, Pats are playing tomorrow! You must pull for them, if they lost, they’re out. *nervous*)

        Inscrutable face? Hmm. That doesn’t work with the professor, I say! *laughs* Oh no, the boat would be sinking see!

        • *laughs* I’m trying to make the connection between riding broncos and the Pats… failing! I shall send them positive thoughts. The Australian Open starts next weeks – I’ll be back to being completely nocturnal again…

          *gasps* How can you be so cheerful about my potential drowning?!? You’d better save me before you get washed ashore or I shall haunt you!

          • *laughing* Well, the Broncos are a football team that might challenge the Pats, see. Sorry. I just assume you’ll know this stuff, when there’s no way you possibly could! *bangs head* *laughs* Is Rafa going to be playing? And would he beat Selena, do you think?

            Haunt me? That might not be too bad, you know. I could still bother you then.

            • Aha! I see! Did they win? He will indeed, as will Andy and Novak! Tchah! Easily! Serena only looks so great because all the other women are rubbish. She couldn’t beat any of the top men. (But don’t tell the feminists I said that!)

              *laughs* I shall remember that when I’m dead then…

            • They did! On to their 5th consecutive AFC championship! *dances* (That’s really good.) Oh boy! I thought you might say that. You know, I’ve never really watched a whole tennis match. Is Rafa just faster, then?

              Yes, do. But no spooking!

            • Then I shall dance too… *does so* Never? But then you don’t really watch much sport at all, do you? Well, speed is part of it, but also strength, stamina and being able to make the ball do what you want. Obviously I’m a fan, so biased, but it really is a sport that tests every aspect of a player. Lots of them have some of the skills needed, but very few have them all. Men’s tennis is going through a golden era at the moment because there are four great players at the same time – highly unusual! Whereas women’s tennis is a bit dull because Serena is so much better than everyone else.

              Spoilsport! *practices rattling chains and groaning*

            • Well, football and baseball…but that’s really it! I do like Tennis. I should watch some. Ahh, I see. Personally, from what I’ve seen, I’d say Tennis is one of the hardest sports. I have watched Rafa briefly (I think) and he makes it look so easy. But then, they all kinda do. The women need to get practicing, I say!!

              *laughs* Can’t you just sing Dejah songs?

            • Rafa got knocked out in the first round! *sobs brokenheartedly* And to think I stayed up all night to watch it too. In fact I can’t remember when I last slept… and two weeks still to go! But yes, I do think it’s a hard sport and they have to be super fit and strong. I love the way Rafa makes it look easy (when he’s playing well *sobs bitterly*). I feel kinda sorry for the women ‘cos Serena is such a phenomenon nobody stands a chance against her when she’s on form – it must be very depressing.

              *laughs* If you’d ever heard me singing, you’d be begging for rattling chains…

            • No!! Oh, that’s horrible. Well, just put all of your rooting powers to the Pats. They’re playing this Sunday against the Broncos. They should downgrade Rafa, the sudden, since he lost, and he should play Serena, I’m thinking. That’d be an interest!

              Nah. Singing is better than chains. Always.

            • Are you sure you want me to do that? My rooting powers don’t seem to be working so well… *sobs and yawns* He may have lost, but he’s still my hero! So you mind your tongue, sir… or else!!

              *laughs* One day I shall sing to you and we’ll see what your opinion is then…

            • OK, I shall cheer them on! Though I rather like the name Broncos… He will! He just needs a new coach…

              *gulps* Well, I’ll try, but that might be too scary even for a haunting…

            • No you don’t! *holds FEF’s ears* Don’t think on the name anymore. But he’ll probably keep him. That’s what they seem to do.

              Just…think Robert Plant and you’ll be fine.

            • Give me back my ears!! OK I’ll support the Pats if you support Andy. Yeah, Rafa’s coach is his uncle so quite hard to get rid of. I’m thinking of applying for the job though…

              *gulps* OK… but I don’t need to get the hairdo, do I?

            • They’ll cost you…around four pennies, I’m thinking. *puts out hand* Deal! I sorta like Andy better than Rafa anyway… His uncle! Yeah, he’s stuck with the beast!

              *laughs* Only if you want!

            • I assure you my ears are worth considerably more than four pennies! At least ten shillings! You do? I like Andy loads too – he used to be a bit of a brat but he’s improved as he’s aged.

              I might then…

  7. Funny how the opening lines of your review remind me of David Bowie’s Black Star video/song. Strange. Anyway, your description is pulling me in like the gravity of a black hole. The mystery. The allure of such an unpopulated and rugged landscape. I’ve never been to Scotland and I MUST GO before I shuffle off this mortal coil.

    • I haven’t watched it – can’t bring myself to yet…

      May does the sense of place so well – it’s one of his major strengths. But if you’re heading for the Hebrides, bring warm clothing! And then bring more warm clothing… 😉

  8. This title is on my TBR for review. I’ve enjoyed other titles by this author and your stellar review has increased my anticipation for “Coffin Road”! Thanks!

    • Oh, I do hope you enjoy it! I’ve been a Peter May fan for many years and am glad to see his books finally get a wider readershop. This one is more like the style of his earlier thrillers, but with a bang up-to-date storyline…

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