Hazel McHaffie

Peter May

The Lewis Trilogy

In the Lewis trilogy, the author, Peter May powerfully captures the atmosphere of the Outer Hebridean Islands, the customs, the traditions, the sparseness, the struggle to make ends meet, the quiet stoicism of Lewis men, the long reach of past events. As one reviewer put it: the emotional secrets of the bleak island are even deeper than its peat bog. I found the books completely mesmerising and so evocative of the islands as I experienced them a couple of years ago, and beguilingly empathetic.

Central to all three novels is Detective Inspector Fin MacLeod. Not only is he familiar with the terrain, but he was born and raised on the Isle of Lewis, so when, in The Blackhouse, he’s sent there to investigate the brutal killing and evisceration of a man he went to school with, the case resurrects memories of the past with searing intensity. His parents’ death in a hit-and-run car crash when he was only 8; his friend’s terrible accident, which left him crippled for life; the tragedy that befell his best friend’s father on Fin’s initiation into an ancient island tradition; his broken relationship with Marsaili, the girl he loved. He’s acutely aware that something dark is lurking within this close-knit community. Ghosts begin to surface, skeletons to rattle, ramifications from those dimly-understood childhood days.

The entire set of books is firmly based in reality. Blackhouses date back thousands of years, but examples have been preserved on the Isle of Lewis to this day (as in the photo above). The medieval Lewis chess men are still in existence today. The customs too are genuine. Vivid descriptions of the islanders fighting against raging storm-laden seas, negotiating sheer rock faces, living out their enmities and grudges, the annual pilgrimage by the men of Ness to cull 2000 gugas on a rocky outcrop in the raging Atlantic seas, are nail-bitingly tense. And against such authenticity, the revelations of what had really transpired all those years ago, feeling the shutters lift in Fin MacLeod’s mind, the awful truth emerge, as a huddle of men hunch together in the smoke-filled blackhouse, is all the more horrifyingly poignant.

Although Fin’s eyes were closed, they were open wide for the first time in eighteen years. The sense that he had had all his adult life, of something that he could not see, something just beyond the periphery of his vision, was physically painful. He was rigid with tension. How could he not have remembered? And yet all his conscious thoughts were awash now with memories, like the vivid recollection of scenes from a nightmare in the moments of waking.

I didn’t see the denouement in the first book coming. It’s brilliantly realised.

In the second book, The Lewis Man, Fin is called back to the island when the body of a young man is dug up in the peat bog, where it has lain undisturbed for over fifty years. It’s extremely well preserved and DNA samples match it to Tormod Macdonald, the father of Fin’s childhood sweetheart, Marsaili, and great-grandfather of his own granddaughter. The dead man has been murdered; stabbed many times, bound and dragged along a beach. But Tormod has dementia, advanced to a point where he has had to be put into care; he’s in no state to explain the connection, nor why he adopted the identity of a dead teenager. By this time, Fin, newly divorced and still grieving his own personal tragedy, has quit the police force.

‘Most people spend their lives never knowing what lies beneath the stones they walk on. Cops spend theirs lifting those stones and having to deal with what they find. I was sick of spending my life in the shadows. When all you know is the darkest side of human nature, you start to find darkness in yourself. And that’s a scary thing.’

But for the sake of Marsaili, and his new baby granddaughter, he is ready to apply all his skills, use his many connections, to unearth the truth, before the big guns from the mainland arrive, with no sensitivity for the ways of islanders, the silent stoicism, fierce loyalties, unforgiving weather, the unwritten rules, the harsh religious strictures. And what he finds is a tangled web of deceit and treachery, once again with sound foundations in the realities of life in the islands in the 50s. I was completely with Fin as he travelled the islands and the streets of Edinburgh piecing together the threads of half a century of cruel behaviours and tribal warfare, driven by a need to assuage his own sense of loss and deprivation as well as give Marsaili and their son, Fionnlagh, the answers they need to anchor their own identities.

In the last book, The Chess Men, an aircraft missing for seventeen years, is discovered in the residual mud and slime of a fifty foot deep crater left behind when a loch mysteriously and suddenly empties itself of water. What’s more, and even more oddly, the plane belonging to Ruairidh McKenzie, talented and successful Celtic rock star, is intact and undamaged. But inside is a body with terrible damage to the right side of his face and his skull; inflicted before death. And Fin, by now drafted in to help curb the poaching of fish and game on an estate, spanning vast tracts of inaccessible land, is instantly involved: his childhood buddy is centre stage, chief suspect.

By this time, I confess, my credulity is being stretched a tad too far. I’m not persuaded Fin’s life would have taken this path; and it’s hard to credit a string of murders on this island where it’s so safe nobody locks their doors and the police have very little experience with serious crime; and there’s a curious mismatch between the characters in the first two books and this one. The childhood escapades of Fin and his schoolboy cohort seem contrived and rather dull too, lacking the psychological depths and appeal of the previous writing. Nor was the denouement worth the effort of ploughing through so much inconsequential filling. So a huge disappointment.

Which all goes to show that even great writers can fall below their own high standards at times – heartening for us lesser mortals. And I’d still highly recommend the first two books. Oh, and a visit to the Hebridean islands!

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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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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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