Hazel McHaffie

Peter May

The Enzo Files

The Enzo Files by Peter May are billed as a ‘mix of whodunit, investigation, thrills, suspense and humour’. They feature a forensic scientist of Scots/Italian descent, called Enzo Macleod who, thanks to a reckless wager, takes on the challenge to solve seven cold cases reported in a book by the widower of the seventh case, journalist Roger Raffin. The stories are all set in France (where May currently lives) and he clearly knows the country well.

Extraordinary People is the first novel in the series: ten years ago Jacques Gaillard, a distinguished scholar, expert in the history of early French cinema, a celebrity with contacts and friends in the highest echelons of society, simply failed to turn up at the end of the August holiday in 1996. Armed with modern technology and a total disregard for the justice system, Enzo begins digging. He applies modern techniques to a few remaining artefacts and soon finds out that Guillard was murdered and probably dismembered in front of the very church altar before which he had worshipped for thirty years, the deed being covered up by the slaughter and incineration of a pig on the same spot.

Little by little Enzo unravels a series of puzzles in the macabre treasure hunt – finding bones and assorted artefacts in each site, all leading him to the next body part and set of clues. ‘An extreme IQ test where cracking the clues was rewarded with the pieces of a murdered man.’ But powerful people and clever minds are determined not to allow the truth to emerge. The government and then his employers warn him off the detective work. Scarcely veiled threats come from a minister and a judge. He persists, but one after another, key people whom he suspects were involved are found dead just as Enzo is about to talk to them, and before long he himself is singled out to be the next victim. But the identity of the last suspect appalls him – it’s someone he knows.

I confess this first book in the Enzo series didn’t quite live up to my expectations of Peter May. It’s more Google-searching than scientific know-how, and large chunks of regurgitated information bog the story down. Much of the setting reads like a French travel guide too! The supporting cast are more promising, and indeed much of the leg work is done by a young student assistant Nicole. The suspense is slow in starting and gets watered down and lost in the morass of Google information. So sorry, Mr May, I wasn’t enamoured of this one.

Nevertheless I persevered. I’ve learned not to judge any writer on a single work. And the second one irritated me less. It feels as if May has got rid of all the background information he wants to share and is settling down to the meat of the search. In The Critic, Enzo is searching for answers to the disappearance of famous and seriously influential wine critic, Gil Petty. Winemakers’ reputations and businesses are lost and found on the basis of his assessments. But then Petty’s body is discovered pickled in wine. More deaths follow and again Enzo’s own life and that of his informants are in danger. May cleverly drops in enough real people and places and wines and historical details to give this one a ring of authenticity. My main niggle was a rather annoying habit of using French words in italics where an English word would have been wholly appropriate and less pretentious.

Fast forward to Cast Iron and the sixth unsolved case in Roger Raffin’s book, and by now the cast of supporting characters are fully fleshed out and we’re rooting for them. This cold case involves the twenty-year old daughter of a judge, Lucie Martin, whose body was disposed of deep in a lake back in 1989, but an unusually hot summer 14 years later reveals it. It’s now 22 years since it happened, and yet someone is still desperate to prevent the case being solved. And this time Enzo’s own daughter Sophie is abducted and in mortal danger. The pressure is on big time: Enzo must stop his investigation or else …

It seems nobody is the kind of person they purport to be, paternity is a flexible concept, and once again Enzo is devastated to find people he trusted and loved are in fact villains. And he himself has changed – ‘everything about him … everything he had known and understood … everything he had been … ‘ the very bedrock on which he had built his life had fallen away beneath his feet … he is a stranger haunting his own past.’

Reading one book after another by any author has its benefits and disadvantages. With this series I found that little by little the characters grew on me and the overall picture consolidated reassuringly. I was glad I’d persevered beyond the first one. However reading several on the trot has its drawbacks. It’s a bit like TV series set in small villages/cities like Midsommer/Oxford where one detective solves murders regularly. Totally implausible. And what are the chances of every single cold case involving violent people bent on silencing Macleod and anyone else getting near to the truth? Vanishingly rare. Sigh! Except … in this instance, by the 44th chapter of the sixth book it all makes sense! Now that’s clever plotting … if you have nerves of steel and the confidence of a few million fans!

 

 

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Let’s celebrate! Books, books and more books

Yep, it’s Christian Aid Book Sale time again in Edinburgh. I was there at St George’s and St Andrew’s in George Street at opening time on Day 2 this year surrounded by over 100,000 secondhand books of every genre, fact and fiction, filling the sanctuary and both courtyards. Imagine! The sun was beating down on us, the mood everywhere was upbeat and busy … I was like a pig in muck! And I picked up no less than fifteen paperbacks! … what? … yes, of course I paid for them! It’s a cause very dear to my heart.

I missed getting the whole set of Peter May‘s The Lewis Trilogy by a whisker – and I even refrained from challenging or cheating the lady who found them two seconds ahead of me but put them down while she continued searching. My honesty and magnanimity was rewarded however, by my finding two other copies in boxes under the tables, and I immediately ordered the third one when I got home – a treat in store.

And another first … there was one of my own used novels nestling amidst all the Maggie O’Farrells and Alexander McCall Smiths and Ian Rankins and JK Rowlings. It felt very grown up!

But as every year, the biggest thrill is seeing so many people browsing and buying and discussing books. So confirming. The written word, the hold-in-your-hand real copy, is very much alive and well.

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Far from the madding crowd … there are books galore!

As I mentioned last week I’ve been on an escape-from-it-all break to the Outer Hebrides – namely Lewis, Harris and North Uist. The islands combine the bleakest most inhospitable moonscapes lashed by Atlantic storms, with the most inspirational idyllic beaches warmed by the balmy Gulf Stream. Historic Scotland have wisely snuck in to preserve ancient dwelling places and relics; the local communities have collaborated to preserve amenities and ways of life.

On the book front, Peter May’s trilogyThe Lewis Man, The Chessmen, The Blackhouse – set in the Hebrides, are on sale widely and tours are available tracing the steps of his protagonists. Putting the area on the literary map.

But one unexpected feature especially jumped out at me: secondhand books are everywhere! In the supermarkets, in regular shops, in craft-y places, in ferry terminals, in information centres … with simple notices requesting or just gently suggesting a donation be popped in an honesty box for a good cause. In spite of my laden shelves back at home, I couldn’t resist supporting this heart-warming and trusting approach. And given the struggles many islanders are contending with, it’s commendable that they’re so public spirited.

I also simply couldn’t resist buying one book at full price – The Woman who Walked into the Sea by journalist turned novelist Mark Douglas-Home  – it will always be associated with my 2018 trip to the outer islands. Skilled investigator Cal McGill explores what happened to Megan Bates, a 26-year-old woman who abandoned her baby on the steps of the local hospital before, next day walking into the cold ocean from a remote Scottish beach (yep, I can picture it vividly) and let the sea wash her away. Sounds like my kind of book. I really really really wanted to pitch into it immediately, but steeled myself to persist with the 79 characters in Georgette Heyer’s medieval novel, My Lord John, first – more of which anon. TWWWITS will be my reward for diligence and loyalty!!

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