Hazel McHaffie

Lewis Trilogy

Chinese Whispers

I’m back to bestselling Scottish author Peter May again, whose books I’ve acquired piecemeal over the past couple of years. Since visiting the Outer Hebrides myself, I’ve reviewed novels from his Enzo Files series, and a couple of standalone tales, before tackling his most famous work: the Lewis trilogy. Time, I thought, to dip into another set.

Chinese Whispers is the last of six thrillers set in China and featuring Beijing detective, Li Yan. And as well as a certain fascination with a culture that’s five thousand years old, there’s an appealing historic context of recent conflicts and tensions alongside the stereotypical picture of poverty, over-population, one-child policy, proliferation of technology, the endless rules, face-masks, innumerable bicycles, we associate with this nation. The names sound authentic and are typically hard to embed in one’s mind even in their English form. The Lins and Lis and Lyangs and Mengs and Wengs and Zhus and Caos and Qins and Wus tend to coalesce confusingly.

But head of the serious crime squad, Chief Li Yan’s name did stick, together with his partner, Margaret Campbell, a pathologist, and mother of his son, Li Jon – appropriately as he’s suddenly become well-known after winning a prestigious award, getting his name and face plastered all over the newspapers. Not a comfortable development for a man who’s snooping around trying to find a killer. Because there’s a maniac at large on his patch – a cool, clever and calculated killer bent on a macabre mission – replicating murders. Not just any murders, but those carried out by Jack the Ripper in the 1800s, a man who was never caught in spite of the small radius within which he operated. This copycat killer in China is taunting the police with his slavish attention to the detail of each killing – horrific mutilation, taking trophies, setting up the death scenes. But how does he know exactly what happened to those girls in another century and another country? Well, a book on the subject has recently been published. Only trouble is, it’s only been available in Chinese for a week. However, the English version has been circulating for 18 months. So … does the killer read/speak English? If so, he’s flaunting the fact. And to add insult to injury he deliberately leaves his DNA in the form of the unsmoked end of a Russian cheroot at each crime scene. So, who is he? And how can he afford to be so brazen?

But then the killer’s modus operandi changes. He sends a letter to warn Li Yan personally of his intentions to kill again. And it happens just as he predicted … including cutting off the victim’s ears. But the girl in question is not the usual prostitute; she’s someone Li Yan knows and respects, a professional colleague. He is overcome with a terrible sense of guilt: somehow this was his fault. Furthermore the killer is implicating him in the crime, ratcheting up the stakes. Horrific ‘gifts’ begin to arrive – half a human kidney, a pair of human ears. And Li’s world – personal as well as professional – begins to unravel. His family are threatened. The pool of suspects is narrowing all the time but we’re kept in suspense to the very last chapter.

Peter May’s reputation is sky-high and his track record for meticulous research is widely acclaimed. And as you can see, I’m a fan. But because he has such a pedigree, I don’t think he would mind if I admitted to a sneaky kick when I noted two minor medical errors and the use of one very non-pc term in Chinese Whispers! There’s hope for us all! And somehow that makes him that wee bit more reachable.

Just two more unread May books left on my shelves – a treat to savour.

 

 

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Coffin Road

If I were given the choice of where to live out six months of quarantine from a deadly virus, one of my first choices would be Luskentyre on the Isle of Harris. It’s breathtaking. Mesmerisingly, deeply, stunningly. Silver sands, clear turquoise water, utter tranquility.
The sea breathes gently upon the shore, phosphorescent foam bursting silver bubbles over gold.
But wild and unforgiving when ferocious storms sweep in across 3000 miles of uninterrupted ocean.

To set a dark and murderous tale against such loveliness seems somehow both incongruous and inspired. But that’s what Peter May has done. It’s only two years since I walked on those unbelievable beaches, drove along those deserted coastal roads, felt the icy salt-laden air roaring in off the Atlantic, so I had to read Coffin Road, and re-imagine the scenery he conjures up so vividly, my own personal memories enhancing enjoyment of his compelling storytelling.

A man washes up on the beach near his house not knowing who he is or where he is or what has happened to him. He’s wearing a life jacket which has saved his life, but why was he in the sea and why is there a terrible sense of dark foreboding hanging over him, a sense of knowing that something terrible has happened? Has he committed some sort of crime? Why is someone threatening his life now? The only clue to his identity is a folded map of a path named Coffin Road.

‘I cannot even begin to describe how dissociating it is to look at yourself without recognition. As if you belong somewhere outside of this alien body you inhabit. As if you have simply borrowed it, or it has borrowed you, and neither belongs to the other.’

An elderly woman recognises him, drenched and dazed, and walks him to his house; she calls him ‘Mr MacLean’. But there’s nothing in the house to give him any clues as to his identity. Even his computer seems to be wiped clean: nothing but blinking emptiness, even in the trash can. How can every trace of him have been removed so comprehensively?

By dint of careful listening without betraying his amnesia, he learns from neighbours that his first name is Neal, and he’s an academic from Edinburgh, writing a book about three lighthouse keepers who mysteriously vanished from Eilean Mòr, one of seven islands in the Flannan Isles to the west of the Outer Hebridean coast. It’s supposedly almost finished. But he quickly establishes that this isn’t, in reality, true. So who IS he, and why has he been lying about his life and reasons for being on Harris?

When a bludgeoned corpse is found on the very island Neal had visited he has a fearful dread that he must have been responsible for it. And since he can’t answer any of the police detective’s questions satisfactorily, they too believe he must be the guilty man.

Meanwhile miles away in Edinburgh, a teenage girl is desperate to discover the truth behind her scientist father’s suicide. Why did he abandon her? Was she to blame? Her last cruel words to him will be forever printed indelibly in her mind. Her quest takes her into grave danger and threatens to blow open a secret that could jeopardise the future of the human race and the planet.

 

I don’t want to give away any spoilers, but another aspect of this story that resonated with me, is that it involves bees, and we actually have three hives in our garden. We’re very aware of the essential role they play in the food-chain and existence of life on this planet, and watch anxiously if there is any hint of danger to them. So it was weirdly spooky when, coincidentally, as I was reading Coffin Road, our own bees swarmed no less than three times in two days! Unprecendented. Sent a shiver down my spine, adding to the sense of total immersion in this story.

I’m a fan of Peter May, as regular readers know, so I’m hoping to use the extra time of lockdown to start the famous Lewis Trilogy next. It’s been waiting for just such an opportunity. And revisiting the landscape of the Outer Hebrides through Coffin Road, has put me thoroughly in the mood.

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