I’ll Keep You Safe by Peter May

Back to the island…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Niamh and Ruairidh Macfarlane are the owners of Ranish Tweed, a successful cloth manufacturer. They are in Paris for a trade show, when Niamh receives an anonymous email accusing her beloved husband Ruairidh of having an affair. She finds herself torn. Part of her can’t believe it, but when she sees Ruairidh with the woman, Irina, she follows them. Suddenly to her shock and horror the car they are in explodes, killing both occupants instantly. The police quickly determine that this is no act of random terrorism, but premeditated murder. Niamh returns to her home on the Isle of Lewis, grief-stricken and lost. Who could have had a serious enough grudge against Ruairidh to commit this awful crime? The answer must lie somewhere in the past…

Beginning of Lengthy and Completely Unnecessary Digression on May’s Work
 (Readers are respectfully advised that they may want to skip ahead… 😉 )

I have been a fan of Peter May’s writing for more decades than I care to remember. But for all that I love his books in general and think he’s one of the best thriller writers of his time, I have found in recent years that when he writes about his home country of Scotland and particularly the islands of the Hebrides, his writing takes on a beauty and depth that transcends any of his other work. His language is wonderfully descriptive, filled with colour and texture, so that the reader sees the harsh loveliness of the landscape, feels the never-ending rain and wind, knows the towns and harbours and the people who live and work in them.

As May has reached his middle years, I’ve found that some of his books have taken on a reflective tone, a kind of nostalgic retelling of what feels very much like fictionalised autobiography. This was perhaps most evident in Runaway, which May based around an incident in his own early life. But I felt it strongly again in this one, though I have no way of knowing whether I’m correct in that assumption. When he does this, it seems to me it has two results – the books are deeper, more emotional, with the feel of contemporary or literary fiction, and contain his truest characterisations; and, conversely, the crime story is weaker, less important and feels rather tacked on. I can understand why some readers might find that a little frustrating but, since what I love most about him is his superb descriptive writing and his ability to create a rich sense of place, the relative downplaying of the crime aspect doesn’t bother me too much. Part of me wishes he’d go the whole hog sometime and write a William Boyd-style literary novel.

I’m sure partly my reaction is because when May is writing about his own country, his own people and his own past, he’s also writing about mine. There’s a profound Scottishness in these Lewis books. Though his style is very different to William McIlvanney’s, I find the same kind of clear-sighted truthfulness in them – he doesn’t gloss over the darker aspects of our society but writes with a warm affection for both place and people. There is a tendency amongst some writers to show life in Scotland as either tartan and twee, or all drugs, drunks and foul-mouthed violence – both aspects that exist on the edges, for sure. But May instead shows what life is like for the majority of us – a mix of old and new, the modern emerging, more slowly, perhaps, in these remote island communities, from the restrictions and harsh traditions of the past.

End of Lengthy Digression

Old Loom – New Tweed. Weaver Kenny Maclennan from Breaseclete treading the Hattersley loom at the Gearrannan Blackhouse Village, Isle of Lewis

Anyway, enough of these musings! To the book! It’s written mostly in the third person, past tense, with some sections in the past told in Niamh’s first-person voice, also past tense. (Regulars will know how happy I am not to be forced to read present tense, even if May does do it better than most.) The bulk of the book is telling us the long history of Niamh’s and Ruairidh’s relationship, from their early childhood through to the present day. We know that some incident happened that has led their families to be at odds with each other, but we don’t find out what till late on. Once married, they set up Ranish Tweed – a variation on the real Harris Tweed which is woven exclusively on the island. Again, May’s research and descriptive skill come into play here, never info-dumping, but showing how this old traditional industry has had new life breathed into it in recent years through clever marketing, becoming a niche couture item for the rich. Through this strand we also get a look at the fashion industry in general and how designers and manufacturers are crucial to each other’s success or failure.

Meantime, the crime is being investigated by Sylvie Braque of the French police, and we learn a little of her life as she struggles to balance single parenthood with the demands of the job. When she comes to Lewis as part of her investigation, she is assisted by local Sergeant George Gunn, who is becoming something of a regular feature in May’s various Lewis novels, making them feel loosely tied together and reminding us that each of the stories form one part that together make up the whole of this community. I’m a big fan of Sergeant Gunn, so was delighted that he got a rather larger role than usual in this one. For the most part, the story is a relatively slow meander through Niamh’s life, but it builds up to a typical May thriller ending which, though I’d guessed part of the solution, still managed to shock me.

As a crime novel, I might only have rated this as 4 stars – there’s no doubt it loses focus on the crime for a long section in the middle. But frankly, I’ll happily ramble round Lewis for as long as May is willing to be my guide, so I was in no hurry to get to the solution. If you haven’t already guessed, highly recommended!

Peter May

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

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38 thoughts on “I’ll Keep You Safe by Peter May

  1. Let me guess…you thought this was a good ‘un, right? 😉 – In all seriousness, I’m really delighted to read that you enjoyed it as well as you did. May really is a talented writer, isn’t he? And although I’m not the Peter May expert that you are, I do agree that he weaves a special kind of magic when he writes about Scotland. As if this weren’t already on my list…

    • Haha – did you notice that then? I thought I’d been subtle… 😉 Yes, I’ve always thought creating a strong sense of place was one of his strengths, but he excels himself when he writes about Scotland. And it’s so nice to read Scottish crime fiction that doesn’t pretend we’re all drunken gun-totin’ gangsters…

  2. I read The Blackhouse when it first came out and found it far too violent, maybe because May is so good at description. Nevertheless it did for me as a May reader and I have never been back.

    • Oh, that’s a pity! It’s so long since I read The Blackhouse the details are hazy now, but I do think it was one of his bleakest. In general, I wouldn’t think of him as writing particularly violent books. This one has a couple of violent scenes but they didn’t strike me as overly graphic. I hope one day you feel you can try another… 🙂

    • I’m glad you enjoyed it – I do babble on sometimes! 😉 Yes, I may be reading more into it than is there – maybe because they reflect my own past – but it does seem to me as if he’s using episodes from his own life. They feel… truer, somehow…

  3. This probably wouldn’t resonate with me as it did with you, but I can see how it might prove to be an interesting read. If I’m going to spend time with a crime novel, I kind of like the crime, investigation, and solution to be the bulk of the story though. Regardless, I love the last photo of the author with the Scottish scenery behind him — very nice!

    • I definitely think these probably work on a different level for Scots of… ahem… a certain age, but they have far more to them than that. Generally, I prefer the focus to stay more on the crime too, but I give him a pass because I love his writing about Lewis so much… 😀

  4. Great review and you are so right about the beauty of his writing about Scotland. I far prefer the look at the lives of ordinary people than those at the edges. I did knock a star off because of the outcome out of awareness that newer readers of May’s work might not realise that it isn’t all about the crime!

    • Thank you! Yes, I’m always so happy on the rare occasion that I read a Scottish crime novel and actually recognise the country I live in! Ian Rankin and Peter May are undoubtedly the best for that. Ha – I know what you mean… I suspect he got that extra star from me because he always makes me feel he’s kinda talking about my life too… 😉

  5. OK, I loved this review! Loved it! May I say it might be the best piece you’ve written – in my eyes anyway. But then, I love Peter May’s books and find them so deep, quite frankly. You said it much better than I. Now, I am so, so excited to read this book. There are a few (a very few) mystery authors that seem to transcend the genre (and I hate it when people are snobbish about genre). I think that Louise Penny is one and I also think Peter May is another. For me, their books are crime novels and more – so much more. I bet I’m going to love this!!! And thanks to both you and Cleo for getting me all in a dither of anticipation. LOL

    • Aw, thank you, Kay – I’m so glad you enjoyed it. I do tend to burble on sometimes! 😉 I definitely agree he transcends the genre – and also that genre fiction is just as good as non-genre, often better. I still haven’t read any Louise Penny, though I do have her first book sitting on my Kindle. I must try to push it up the priority list. I hope you do love this one – I think you will… 😀

  6. Loved the digression! It is clear that you love this author reflecting your home back to you. You’ve convinced me to visit Lewis Island sometime soon (in fiction, anyway).
    The pronounciation of those characters’ names has left me baffled, though.

    • Ha – glad you enjoyed it! I felt this review was even more burbly than my usual! 😉 Oh, I do think you might enjoy Peter May’s writing and this would actually be quite a good one to start with, I think – it’s not so thrillery as some of his others. Haha – I can’t do Gaelic pronunciations either – most Scots can’t! But he has a little list of the pronunciations at the front of the book. These two are Neeve and Roo-are-ee.

  7. I love May’s books and am eagerly looking forward to reading this one. And I loved your digression too. I agree that his Scottish books are so richly descriptive and hurray for the past tense.

    • I’m glad you enjoyed the digression – I realised I’d got even more waffly than usual with this one! 😉 I’m about 99% certain you’ll love this, Margaret – the crime side might be a bit underplayed but it’s made up for in the depth of the rest of the story. Enjoy!

    • He’s been writing consistently good books for decades, but they took a real step up when he started using Lewis as his setting. As a standalone, this would be an excellent one to try him out. If you ever get time to, I hope you enjoy him! 😀

  8. I too, loved the digression. And I find myself flailing against the tide in my attempts NOT to read Peter May and/or Louise Penny. It’s not that I don’t want to; it’s just finding the time. After all, if I liked them I’d have the prospect of all their back copies. Such a dilemma…. *wandering off in search of chocolate…*

    • Aw, thank you – I’m glad you enjoyed it! I felt I’d got even more waffly than usual. 😉 Ha! I know – I’m terrified to read authors who have huge back catalogues. Ann Cleeves is another I’m sure I’ll love and so am afraid to try! But you could stick with Peter May’s Lewis books – I think there’s only about six of them off the top of my head, and in my opinion they’re his best work. 😀

        • Some can. The Blackhouse, The Lewis Man and The Chessmen are known as the ‘Lewis Trilogy’ and they’re best read in order. (The Lewis Man is the best of those, I think – again that autobiographical feel to it.) But this one, Coffin Road and Entry Island are all standalones. Coffin Road is much more of a straight thriller, though, whereas this and Entry Island are more like ‘fiction’. Entry Island also has a strong historical fiction feel as it partly deals with the subject of the Highland Clearances. His other recent standalone is Runaway, which is part Glasgow, part London, and is also fairly autobiographical in feel. If you were looking for a place to start, I’d say this one would be a great introduction to his more thoughtful style. 🙂

  9. I’m in the middle of this novel now. Like you, I’m enjoying the descriptions of Niamh’s childhood in the Hebrides and I’m a huge fan of Peter May’s writing style. I’m interested in the ‘mystery’ of the book, but it is not the most important aspect of the book for me.

    • I’m glad you’re enjoying it and hope you continue to! Yes, I think in a way it’s a pity they always get billed as “explosive thrillers” because although some of his books undoubtedly are traditional thrillers, these later Lewis books seem more slow-paced and thoughtful to me, and I always think the blurbs will start new readers off with false expectations.

    • It was always the tweed that the country set wore over here, but for a long time it went into decline when more industrialised methods of weaving came along. Now it’s been revived and protected as a real “cottage industry” and is probably way too pricey for mere mortals! Yes, I do recommend his books for exactly that reason – I always find they tell me about far more than just the crime…

    • Hmm… I reckon that would take a 20000 word essay from someone more knowledgeable than me to answer properly! But partly it’s the isolation – until fairly recently, they were quite cut off from the mainland whenever the weather was bad, which is very often. And partly it’s the weather – you had to be hardy to survive, so it was a very tough culture. And partly poverty – mostly (I think) it was pretty much subsistence farming eked out by fishing, again until fairly recently, so perhaps quite a masculine dominated culture. But perhaps mainly, it’s religion. Protestantism in Scotland is a pretty miserable religion at the best of times – less Jesus Loves You, and more Burn in Hell for All Eternity, Ye Miserable Sinners! and the islands took that to extremes. So very little fun, strict Sabbath observance, public shaming in churches and church control over just about every aspect of life. It’s changing, but slowly, and there’s a resulting divide now between the older people and the younger…

        • Oh, I must have given the wrong impression! I’m not from the islands – I’m from Glasgow, Scotland’s biggest city, and along with Edinburgh probably the most modern one in terms of attitudes and culture. I doubt I could have stood life on the islands either for the hardship or the strict religious observance. Peter May is Glaswegian too, but worked on Lewis for years producing a Gaelic language drama serial.

  10. Wonderful digression, I’m with you, I find Peter May’s Lewis setting so evocative and prefer these books (I’m also happy to keep wandering around Lewis as long as May feels inclined!) After reading the earlier novels, I was so captured with the sense of place, that I got May’s ‘Hebrides’, a photographic account of the Outer Hebrides – I’d love to visit there one day.

    • Thank you! 🙂 I’m ashamed to admit I’ve never visited the Outer Hebrides either, though I’ve been to the Inner Hebrides. In my youth it was a lengthy and expensive business to get there even for Scots. I’ve seen that book advertised and been tempted by it myself…

  11. Love your beautiful thoughts about how he represents the Scottish, some writers can really get held up on stereotypes and cliches can’t they? Which really makes me cross as a Scot myself. Both you and Cleo have reminded me I need to go back and read more Peter May!!

    • Aw, thanks, Beth! 😊 Yes, it’s bad enough when other people stereotype Scots as foul-mouthed drunks but it drives me mad when Scottish writers only show that aspect of society. Not to mention the gangs that are apparently roaming all over Glasgow with guns terrorising the natives. I must just keep missing them… 😉

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