The Man With No Face by Peter May

Hold the front page…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

When a new editor takes over at The Edinburgh Post and begins to dumb it down in an attempt to increase circulation, top investigative journalist Neil Bannerman makes his feelings only too clear. So he is swiftly banished to Brussels, to the headquarters of the EEC (as the EU was called back then), tasked with digging up some stories in the run-up to the forthcoming British Parliamentary elections. No-one is expecting quite such a big story though. Bannerman’s fellow journalist, Tim Slater, is murdered along with a rising man in British politics, Robert Gryffe. When the story is quickly hushed up on orders from on high, Bannerman’s journalist interest is only more heightened, and he sets out to discover who carried out the killings and, perhaps more importantly, why.

This is one of Peter May’s earliest books, first published in 1981 and now being republished. In the introduction, May says he carried out a “light revision” of the text, but made only minor changes. When I learned it was such an early novel and long out of print, I lowered my expectations going in, but was intrigued to see how one of my long-term favourite authors started out. Well! No need to make allowances – this is a great thriller, right up there with the best he’s ever done!

Mostly we see the story from Bannerman’s perspective though in the third person, but there are also chapters throughout where the perspective shifts to Kale, the hired assassin who carries out the killings. This doesn’t in any way diminish the mystery, since Kale doesn’t know who has hired him or why – he’s simply doing a job. These chapters give an extra edge of darkness to the story. Kale is a damaged man, unsurprisingly given his profession, and a cold, clinical killer who doesn’t make mistakes. Until this time. Unknown to him, Slater’s young autistic daughter, Tania, has witnessed the killings, but her condition makes her unable to speak. She can draw however, and she draws a detailed picture of the killer, with just one thing missing… his face.

Bannerman is an excellent protagonist – hard, uncompromising, relentless when he’s on the track of a story, but with his own vulnerabilities and troubled past. He is drawn towards Tania, and she, sensitive to others’ feelings and starved of affection, finds herself equally drawn to him. So when it seems she might be in danger because of witnessing the crime, Bannerman has an extra reason to find the killer. Tania has a regular babysitter, Sally, who provides a love interest for Bannerman, but she of course also has a troubled past! I wouldn’t describe the book as full-on noir, but there’s certainly a noirish feel to it with all these damaged characters and corrupt politicians. But May doesn’t overplay his hand, and allows at least some of his characters some hope of redemption, all of which prevents the tone from becoming too bleak.

In the introduction again, May says that the portrayal of Tania’s autism is “a reflection of prevailing opinion at the time”. I must say I think it’s stood the test of time very well, and still reads to me as far more authentic and less sensationalised or mawkish than many of the more recent fictional portrayals of people with autism. The reader is occasionally allowed inside Tania’s mind where we see her frustration at her inability to express herself, and that helps to explain her sometimes extreme behaviour. It’s a sympathetic and somewhat understated picture, and I found her entirely credible.

Peter May

The plot is complex and Bannerman’s search for the truth is again very credible, well within the realism of investigative journalism. May, of course, was a journalist himself back in the day, so it’s hardly surprising that the aspects surrounding the newspaper business ring true. The book is set in 1979, so no internet or mobile phones, and it reminded me how much I preferred thrillers back in the days when the protagonist was a real old-fashioned gumshoe, always on the move, dealing with people face to face. There is some violence, but nothing that felt overly graphic or out of place, and there’s a real and increasing sense of danger as the story unfolds, all leading up to an excellent thriller climax.

I must say I loved this as much as any of his later books, and am now hoping that Quercus dig out his other early thrillers and dust them off. A special treat for fans, but would work just as well for newcomers to his work. Highly recommended! It’s left me wanting to go back and re-read all his China thrillers, too…

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

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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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The Ghost Marriage by Peter May

Take this woman…

😀 😀 😀 😀

This short novella is a new follow-up to Peter May’s China Thrillers. This was the series that originally turned me into a May fan, long before the Lewis Trilogy made him a major star in the firmament of crime fiction. So it was a pleasure to revisit Margaret, the American forensic pathologist, and her Chinese partner, Li Yan of the Beijing police.

Margaret and Li Yan are still living together, now with the addition of their young son, when Margaret is approached by an elderly woman who tells her that her granddaughter has gone missing, and begs Margaret to use her influence with Li Yan to get him to investigate. As Li Yan gradually finds out what happened to the girl, the story takes us into a mysterious and macabre aspect of Chinese tradition, and into the secrets and lies that can exist in families.

Because the story is so short, I won’t say any more about the plot for fear of spoiling it. What has always attracted me most to May’s writing is that he chooses interesting settings for his crimes and his impeccable research allows him to create a great sense of place. This was always particularly true of the China Thrillers, especially since he began the series way back when the idea of visiting China still seemed like an exotic dream for most of us. The length of this one doesn’t allow for much description of Beijing itself, but the plot gives an insight into some of the strange superstitions and rituals that still exist in the country, while also touching on some of the issues thrown up by China’s long-standing but now abandoned one-child policy.

From the South China Morning Post: Dolls represent the happy couple in a Chinese-style “ghost wedding”

With Margaret being a pathologist, the China Thrillers also contained some rather gruesome autopsy scenes, and that tradition continues in this one. There isn’t room for a huge amount of detection – really we just see the story unfold along with Li Yan as he gradually uncovers the truth. I enjoyed it as a way to catch up with two characters who feel like old friends, but I think it would work equally well as a brief introduction to the style of the series for people who haven’t tried it yet. There was never much doubt that Margaret and Li Yan would stay together as a couple so although this takes place after the other books, it’s otherwise spoiler free.

Peter May

I listened to the Audible audiobook version, narrated by Peter Forbes who, I believe, has been the narrator for May’s books for a long time now. I thought his narration was very good – I have no way of knowing whether his pronunciations of Chinese words and names is accurate, but I certainly found them convincing. The decision to give the Chinese characters Chinese accents didn’t really work for me, I admit – I feel that if characters are supposed to be speaking their own language, then they shouldn’t be made to sound ‘foreign’. I listened to a Maigret novel immediately following this, where the narrator gave all the French characters English accents appropriate to their class and position in society, and I must say that felt much more natural and authentic. However, it’s a debatable point, and some people may prefer the ‘foreign’-sounding accents.

Overall, a short but enjoyable return to the world of Beijing. I’m now wondering whether this is a kind of coda to the series, or whether it’s to whet our appetites for a future new novel? I hope it’s the latter…

NB This audiobook was provided for review by Audible UK via MidasPR. The story is also available as an e-book.

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Cast Iron (Enzo Files 6) by Peter May

Secrets of the past…

😀 😀 😀 😀

cast-ironBack in book 1 of the Enzo Files series, Scottish forensic expert Enzo Macleod, now living in Toulouse, took on a bet that he could use modern forensic techniques to solve the seven unsolved murders that were described in a true crime book written by Parisian journalist Roger Raffin. A few years on, he is now beginning his investigation into the sixth murder, of a young girl, Lucie Martin. Lucie disappeared one day back in 1989, and no trace of her was found until the great heatwave of 2003 when her skeleton showed up in the dried-out shore of the lake near her home. Her parents believe she was murdered by a notorious serial killer who was active at that time, but he had a cast-iron alibi for the time she disappeared. Enzo has very little to go on as he reopens the case, but it soon becomes clear someone is out to stop him from finding out the truth…

Anyone who reads my blog regularly will know that I’m a big fan of Peter May’s work, going all the way back to his China thrillers. I admit, however, that the Enzo Files is the one series of his to which I’ve never really taken. In fact, I haven’t read them all – just the first two, then this one. But this is really due to a matter of personal preference than any real criticism of the books. May’s usual protagonists tend to be unencumbered by family ties, or to develop relationships as the series progress. But Enzo comes with a lot of family baggage, which gets added to in each book. Having left his first wife and their daughter, he moved to France with his new love, who then died giving birth to another daughter. So in the early books there’s a lot of working out of resentments with his first, abandoned daughter, Kirsty, and by the time of this book, both daughters have acquired lovers who featured in earlier cases.

Enzo meantime picks up women at a rate that would make George Clooney jealous, so that by the time of this book he has tense relationships with more than one ex. And in each story, some or all of his extended family get involved in the investigation. May does it very well, and keeps all the various personal storylines ticking over, but it’s just not my kind of thing – I find all the relationship stuff takes away from the focus on the plot (and I frankly don’t see what it is about Enzo that apparently makes him so irresistible to women). But I wouldn’t want to put other readers off – what I don’t like about this series may well make it particularly appealing to people who like their protagonists to have a ‘real’ life beyond the immediate plot.

As Enzo begins his investigation by visiting the victim’s family, he is unaware that his daughter Sophie and her boyfriend Bertrand have been abducted, until he receives a warning to stop if he wants to get them back safely. Naturally, this only makes him redouble his efforts! The strand involving Sophie and Bertrand’s imprisonment and attempts to escape is my favourite bit of the book. It takes us into traditional thriller territory with plenty of action and mounting tension, and May excels at this type of writing.

Peter May
Peter May

The main plot regarding Lucie’s murder is also excellent, showing all May’s usual skill at creating strong characters and interesting settings, and managing to have some credible emotional content to offset the action thriller side of the book. However, there is also an overarching plot to the series which comes to a climax in this one, and I felt there was perhaps a little too much going on and too many coincidental crossovers between the various strands. But May’s writing is a pleasure to read as always, and he manages to bring all the threads together well in the end. Some aspects of this work as a standalone, but because it reveals so much about the background plot, I would strongly suggest this is a series that should be read in order. Reading this one first would undoubtedly spoil the earlier books in a significant way. The first book in the series seems to be known as Extraordinary People now, though it was originally published under the title Dry Bones.

I hope my relatively lukewarm review won’t deter people from trying this series. Even with favourite authors, we all prefer some of their stuff to others, but any Peter May book is still head and shoulders above most of the competition. And this is as well-written and strongly plotted as always, while the French setting gives it an added level of interest. So, despite my personal reservations, I still recommend the series, especially if the complicated family relationships aspect appeals to you.

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

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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.

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Post Script: Runaway by Penn and May…

…the video!

 

Haha! If you read my post on Peter May’s new book, Runaway, you’ll know I poked a little fun at his music video. Be sure your sins will find you out! Mrs May, aka writer Janice Hally, tweeted me to say that there is now indeed a video for the title track.

This one tells the story of the real episode in Peter’s life when he ran away to London, and apparently Stephen Penn was part of that. Seriously, I think this is a good song well performed and filmed, and happily (or sadly, depending on how you look at it) no bikini-clad damsels…

 

Enjoy!

 

Runaway by Peter May

runawayHit the road, Jack…

😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

When Jack Mackay is expelled from school, he decides to run away to London. He tells his friends, the other four members of the band he plays in, and they decide to go with him – partly to get away from problems in their own lives, and partly to seek fame and fortune. It’s 1965, and London is swinging – the place to be for all aspiring musicians. But it’s also a place where young people can find themselves manipulated and used, and caught up in events they can’t control. And Jack’s London adventure ends with a killing. Fifty years on, one of the band members, Maurie, now terminally ill with cancer, reveals that the person everyone thought was the killer was innocent, and that he knows who really did it. He persuades Jack and Dave, the two remaining band members still living in Glasgow, to go back with him to London to put things right while there’s still time.

The publicity blurb for the book tells us that parts of the story are based on May’s own experiences of running away to London as a teenager. As with his last few books, this one has a double timeline. The story of the ’60s London trip is told by Jack in the first-person, while the present day section is third person, though still very firmly from Jack’s perspective, and both sections are written in the past tense. Though we know from the beginning that someone is murdered, we don’t know who or why until near the end, so this has more of the feel of thriller than a mystery. We also know that Maurie knows whodunit, so there’s no investigation element. Instead what we have are two linked but very different stories of the characters heading to London, and the gradual revelation of what happened to the boys in the earlier storyline once they got there.

Both timelines have a great feeling of authenticity and, as always with May, the sense of place is done superbly. I hadn’t realised May grew up in the Southside of Glasgow (as did I), but the accuracy with which he describes it suggests he must have done. Although he’s writing about a somewhat earlier era than my own, the places, attitudes, language and lifestyle are all spot-on. Spookily so, in fact – I kept finding parts of my own life mirrored in the story and spent much of the early part of the book being reminded of events and places in my own past.

The Pond in Queen's Park on Glasgow's Southside...
The Pond in Queen’s Park on Glasgow’s Southside…

The two journeys, 50 years apart, allow May to show the changes across the country in that time, and he does so very well. Both journeys take the form of road-trips, punctuated by accident and disaster, but lifted by a healthy dose of humour. Along the way, the boys rescue Maurie’s cousin from her drug-dealing boyfriend and she becomes one of the gang as they finally arrive in London and start looking round for the streets paved with gold. And at first, when they are given lodgings and a job by a man who promises them a chance to cut a demo disc, it looks as though they have landed on their feet. But it’s not long before things go wrong and start to spiral out of control.

The trip undertaken by the older version of the men in the present day is filled with a mixture of nostalgia and humour. It’s through Jack’s reminiscences during this trip that we see the earlier story unfold, and see him reassessing with the eyes of experience the risks to which his younger self laid himself open. Gradually we see how his whole life has been affected by the things that happened back then, with this trip giving him a chance for some kind of resolution and even redemption.

Peter May
Peter May

The one weakness of the book for me was the crime element itself. The murder and motive for it weren’t quite strong enough to justify the lengthy lead-up – in fact, it felt a little as if it had been tacked on to justify the book being classed as a crime novel. The strength of the book is in the relationships between the boys as they face up to the realities of life; and later between the men as they come to terms with the events that had such an impact on each of their lives. The ending felt a little contrived to bring the whole thing to a neat conclusion.

Overall, though, this is an excellent read that convinces me again that May is at his strongest when he’s writing about his own native country – his instinctive feel for the places and people is far more convincing than even his best researched books set elsewhere. But perhaps I’m biased…

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

* * * * *

Interesting little note…

Apparently May and his old friend Stephen Penn have released an album, also entitled Runaway. Sadly there’s no video for the title track on youtube but here is Peter May singing Big Bad Wolf

 

(I don’t do music reviews so shall leave you to judge it for yourself. But you just gotta love the bikini-clad dollybirds! Ah, middle-aged men and their little fantasies – what would we do without them? 😉 )

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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.

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Dry Bones (Enzo Files 1) by Peter May

A good start to the series…

🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂

dry bonesSet in Paris, this thriller from Peter May is the first to feature forensic scientist Enzo Macleod. A Scot now living in Cahors in France, Enzo takes on a bet with some friends that, using new scientific methods of detection, he will be able to solve the mystery of the disappearance a decade earlier of brilliant university teacher Jacques Gaillard. What starts as an interesting intellectual puzzle soon turns into a full-blown thriller as Enzo begins to uncover a conspiracy involving some of the elite of French political and academic life.

While all the standard elements of the thriller are here – clues, conspiracies, chases, danger – what raises Peter May’s novels above the average is the sense of place he conveys, based on what is clearly meticulous research. This book takes us on a journey through France and each place is described with a deft touch that lets us get to know it without being overwhelmed by unnecessary detail. Much of the book is set in Paris and, while showing us the city that any tourist will recognise, May also goes deeper, giving us insights into the workings of the structures and systems that produce the top people in government and commerce. He also uses his fine descriptive writing and eye for detail to paint a vivid picture of the catacombs that exist beneath the city.

Paris catacombs
Paris catacombs

As often happens in the first of a series, it took some time for all the characters to be introduced and for their back-stories to be filled out and this made the early part of the book a little slow. I also felt that sometimes the way Enzo was able to work out the clues in the plot seemed a bit too easy – coincidence came into play a little too often. I didn’t enjoy this quite as much as I did May’s China thrillers or his most recent and excellent Lewis trilogy, but nonetheless I thought it was a good read with engaging characters that certainly encouraged me to go on and read the next in the series.

NB This book has also been published under the title Extraordinary People.

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The Chessmen (Lewis Trilogy 3) by Peter May

The ChessmenShadows of the past…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

This third part of Peter May’s Lewis trilogy is stunningly good. As a long-standing enthusiast for May’s work, I believe these three books are by far his best work, and this last one may even be the best of the three.

May’s descriptive prose and sense of place are, as always, wonderful. The bleakness and yet beauty of this harsh weather-beaten landscape, the way of life and traditions of the islanders, the still strong grip of the ultra-conservative Church – all of these are woven seamlessly through the story. And the story once again is focused on shadows of the past coming back to haunt the present.

Lewis Chessmen
(Source:Wikipedia)
Roddy Mackenzie, an old friend of Fin’s, has been presumed dead since his plane went missing 17 years ago but his body was never recovered. Until now, that is…and with the discovery, old memories are dragged up, old friendships and enmities re-evaluated and old crimes lead to new ones. From the start, the landscape and weather of Lewis play a vital role in a story that feels as if it couldn’t be set anywhere else. The story then cuts from past to present as Fin remembers his school and student days when he worked as a roadie for Roddy’s band. Despite the different timelines and the fact that the book changes from first to third person and back, the story never loses momentum on its way to a climax that is as shocking as it is unexpected.

For anyone who is new to the series, I would urge you to read them in order starting with The Blackhouse, then The Lewis Man, since there are aspects of this book that could give away the plots of the previous ones. My only disappointment is that this is billed as the last of the Lewis books. I hope Peter May can be convinced to reconsider – I believe there’s more mileage in these characters and this setting yet. But if not, then this is a thrilling ending to what has been a truly great series – highly recommended.

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The Lewis Man (Lewis Trilogy 2) by Peter May

The Lewis Man

The past casts long shadows…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

With this second part of his Lewis trilogy (the first being The Blackhouse), Peter May has again shown that he is up there in the top rank of the current crop of Scottish crime writers.

When a preserved body is discovered in a peat bog, DNA testing shows that the victim is related to Tormod Macdonald, the father of Marsaili, Fin Macleod’s childhood love. Fin has now left the police force in Edinburgh and returned to Lewis to restore his parents’ house and soon gets sucked into the investigation. Tormod is suffering from dementia and although he still has flashes of memory about the events of his youth he is unable to tell the story of what happened in words. However, the reader is allowed into Tormod’s mind and through a combination of his fragmentary recollections and Fin’s investigations a grim and moving picture gradually develops of Tormod’s childhood experiences first in an orphanage and then shipped as a ‘homer’ to a family in the islands. May’s story-telling skills bring this shameful and little known part of Scotland’s recent past vividly to life. And again, as in the first novel in the series, the long shadows of the past loom threateningly over the present day.

Peat Bog, Isle of Lewis(source: Wikipedia)
Peat Bog, Isle of Lewis
(source: Wikipedia)

As always, May’s research is meticulous and the picture he creates has an air of complete authenticity. For me, the Lewis novels are his best – it seems he has an affinity with the life and natural world of the islands which makes his descriptive writing compelling. His recurring characters are likeable and their story is further developed in this book. May’s handling of Tormod’s difficult childhood and present dementia is sensitive and sympathetic. However, he also manages to inject some humour into the story to lighten the otherwise dark and bleak tone. I enjoyed The Blackhouse very much, but I believe this one is even better. I am only sorry that there will be just one more in the Lewis series. Highly recommended.

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The Blackhouse (Lewis Trilogy 1) by Peter May

Dark secrets…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

The BlackhouseThe novel is set on the remote island of Lewis far off the coast of northern Scotland. This is an area that the author will know well since he spent several years there producing and filming the Gaelic language TV series, Machair. This gives an authenticity to the very strong descriptions of this remote, rugged, weather-beaten corner of the British Isles. In particular, May’s description of the annual guga (gannet) hunt is fascinating both in its detail and in the light it sheds on the island community’s strong attachment to its ancient traditions.

DS Fin MacLeod is sent back to Lewis to investigate a murder that resembles one that took place earlier in his Edinburgh patch. Returning home after 20 years away, Fin is thrown into remembering and re-assessing his difficult childhood and adolescence. The book alternates between the present day and Fin’s past and it gradually emerges that the shadow of that past may be involved in the current investigation.

Peter May
Peter May
At first, I found the alternation between the present and the past irritating as it seemed to break the flow of the story. However, as the links between the two became clearer, the tension gradually mounted and came finally to an unexpected and dramatic climax. Along the way, May describes a community more inclined to deal with problems internally rather than involving the authorities, a place where the young people are beginning to challenge the traditions and strict religious observances of their elders and where dark secrets can sometimes come back to haunt.

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