A great many of my most sleepless nights over the past 12 months can be laid firmly at the door of Peter May, whose trilogy of books set on the remote Hebridean Isle of Lewis I raced through.
May hit on an irrepressible formula in the trilogy: haunting, insistent storylines with the sharp bite and twisting narrative of the very best mystery stories; beautifully cut characters - and in particular leading man Fin MacLeod, a detective and Lewis native recently returned to his home island, and Marsaili, his childhood sweetheart; and an arresting and fascinating backdrop in Lewis, one of the most distant and least known parts of the United Kingdom.
Lewis is one outstanding feature of these three excellent novels. No more than a few pages into book one, The Blackhouse, I was turning to Google maps to show me where Lewis was. By the end of it I was examining options for heading up there on holiday. It seems I was not alone.
May, a Scotsman now living in south west France, wrote the series after his own experiences producing a television series on Lewis. His love of the islands has been conveyed to readers who have surprised him with their reaction.
"I only knew what an impact the islands had made on me, and wanted to convey that as vividly as possible, he says. "I had not realised what enormous interest in the islands would be aroused by the books. I have been deluged by emails from readers all over the world expressing an interest in visiting the Hebrides after reading the books - and many of them have since made the journey. I have met French readers who returned from the island with vials of sand from Hebridean beaches, having followed religiously in Fin’s footsteps. I never anticipated that."
During May's time on Lewis, where he produced the Gaelic drama serial Machair during five-month stints over five years, "the island etched itself into my conscious and sub-conscious mind in a way that made the writing of the books very vivid and personal to me."
The result is a vivid realisation of the landscape and a portait of life on Lewis that has eschewed an idealised vision in favour of a searingly honest, warts-and-all view.
"I wanted to write about the islands as they are, not through some romantic prism," he says. "I experienced them myself in the raw. The relentless winds, the ever changing weather, the violence of the ocean beating upon timeless cliffs, and the struggle of people to survive on the edge."
And despite presenting Lewis as a community with a per capita murder rate to match Oxford in the days of the dearly departed Morse, the locals have enjoyed the grisly spotlight.
"Almost without exception the trilogy has been received with great enthusiasm by the islanders themselves," he says. "All the book events I have done there have been standing-room only, and the books in the trilogy are still the best-selling books in the Hebrides."
The over-arching theme that ties the novels together is the way the past has a habit of reaching into the present and taking a vice-like grip on lives. In The Blackhouse, Fin is forced to confront uncomfortable memories of his adolescence as well as his treatment of Marsaili. In The Lewis Man, the unearthing of a perfectly preserved body sends Fin on an investigation that delves decades deep into an Island family's life. The final installment, The Chessmen, which is published in paperback in the UK today (Aug 29), sees Fin investigating the disappearance of one old school friend and the self-destructive behaviour of another.
The ties of family and friendship run deep in the novels, which have an emotional depth that was certainly key to my total immersion in them, and it is no surprise that May says they are very personal to him.
"I think every writer reaches a stage in his or her life where the accumulation of life experience brings pause for reflection, and perhaps introspection," he says. I had arrived at that point when I sat down to write the trilogy, and so brought to it many of my own personal experiences and regrets - my father’s descent into alzheimer’s, the discovery that the girl I fell for on my first day at school (the model for Marsaili) was dead, the diagnosis of a growth in my throat that would only be proved cancerous or otherwise by operating on it. All these things and more bring a life into perspective, and with that comes the realisation that whether aware of it or not, we are all sowing the seeds of our own success or destruction."
So popular have the books been that many readers - myself included - were hoping that May's "trilogy" could potentially become a quartet (just as Ann Cleeve's brilliant "Shetland quartet" has recently been augmented by a fifth installment.)
"I’m afraid I can offer no hope of a fourth book," he says. "I have dealt in as much depth as I can with Fin’s life. And it would be wholly unrealistic to continue a crime series on an island where the average murder rate is one a century. But I don’t leave the Hebrides behind. The island feature strongly in my new novel, Entry Island, which will be out in January."
Entry Island, which will be published by Quercus in January, looks a sure fire hit given it is the work of an award-winning, best-selling author, but May's early struggles to get the Trilogy published are a cautionary tale for aspiring authors and publishers alike.
"The Blackhouse was, for me, a departure from my previous writing. While still working within the crime genre I finally achieved a lifelong ambition to write a novel - which is what I regarded The Blackhouse to be. And when I finished it, I was pretty certain it was the best thing I had ever written," he says. "It came as a huge shock, then, to have it rejected by all the major publishing houses in the UK. I simply couldn’t understand why no one wanted to publish it, and if it hadn’t been for the enthusiasm of my French publisher who bought world rights in the book, and ultimately sold it all over the world, it would have languished unpublished as a file buried somewhere in my computer archives."
As well as all but guaranteeing the success of May's future work, the Lewis books will also likely ignite interest in an eclectic back catalogue that includes one series set in China and another in south-west France (the Enzo Thrillers). As well as revealing an affinity for travel, May also suggests an unlikely influence alongside the more conventional authors he lists including Graham Greene, F Scott Fitzgeraald John Steinbeck.
"I think I must have been influenced by my childhood reading of Hergé’s adventures of Tintin, where many of the stories were set in strange and exotic places," he says. "I just get ideas for my books and follow where they take me. And that has been to places as diverse as China, south-east Asia, Africa, France, the United States and Canada. I will never write about a place that I haven’t been to. So it makes for an interesting life."
An interesting life and a highly successful career which he began as a trainee car salesman - "This was never going to be a career! I was expelled from school midway through my sixth year and had to find myself a job fast" - moved through journalism and television production and now into novel-writing.
Success brings reward and recognition, of course, but challenges also.
Success always brings pressure. People say you are only as good as your last book. But, actually, you are only as good as your next one""he says. "And the more successful you are, the higher the expectations. But generally I don’t think about that. I have always been an ideas person. And once I have an idea I just immerse myself in it. I only start to worry about whether the book’s any good or not after I’ve written it!"