Peter May successfully left the Hebrides and his highly acclaimed Lewis trilogy behind him in his previous standalone novel Runaway – but, my goodness, how good it is to have him back there in his clever new bestseller Coffin Road.
On this occasion it is Harris, the southern neighbor to Lewis, where the majority of the mystery unfolds. And even here – more than fifteen hundred miles to the south reading in (mostly) Spanish sunshine – I felt I was on the windswept north western edge of the British Isles, hunkering down out of the Atlantic gales, such is May’s gift for bringing the islands to life.
Coffin Road opens as a man is washed up, soaked and freezing, on a Harris beach unable to remember who he is or why he might be there. With the aid of a neighbour he is hvelped to a house that is apparently his where a dog, Bran, is delighted to see him. Working on this slim self-knowledge, the man starts to try to piece together the details of his existence.
In parallel a teenage girl in Edinburgh, angry and alienated from her life following the suicide of her father, sets out to uncover why he abandoned her in this way.
Just as the man begins to get a slight grip on his existence he discovers the body of an unrecognised murdered man in the lighthouse in the Flannan Isles, to the west of Lewis, where his search has taken. Racked with fear, he believes he may be the murderer.
The investigation is placed in the hands of local detective George Gunn (who featured in the Lewis trilogy) and it uncovers a complex tangle of business, science and personal greed.
While Coffin Road, perhaps inevitably, lacks some of the intense characterization that marked the Lewis trilogy, it more than makes up for it in a suspenseful narrative that keeps its secrets right up to its dramatic conclusion. It’s a skillfully plotted novel, thoroughly enjoyable, and will confirm May’s status as one of Scotland’s modern crime masters – no mean feat in a very crowded field.
It will doubtless also serve as yet another compelling advertisement for the Hebridean tourist authorities. I spent much of the book poring over Google map views of Harris and Lewis and confirmed them as highly placed entries on the to-visit list.
Review: Entry Island by Peter May