Book review: "Entry Island" by Peter May


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The Independent Culture

Author Peter May is masterful at making a little go a long way. His acclaimed Lewis trilogy spun three tales of murder and mystery from the unpromising prospects afforded by the Outer Hebrides. In Entry Island, May once again mines this rich Hebridean seam for nuggets; the only difference being that the crime is in the distant past, during the notorious clearances in which profit-hungry landlords brutally removed settled communities from their estates in the Highlands and Islands to replace them with sheep.

Fast forward more than a century and a half, and a team of murder squad detectives fly from Montreal to the Magdalen islands which sit in the teeth of Canada’s Atlantic coast between Newfoundland and Nova Scotia. Among their number is Detective Sime Mackenzie. Mackenzie is odd-man out in the team, having been co-opted at the last minute as a native English speaker required to interview the main suspect in a murder case – the English speaking wife of a wealthy businessman stabbed to death by an intruder.

Mackenzie is also ill at ease because the team also includes his wife, a forensics expert, from whom he is acrimoniously separated. The split has left him with chronic insomnia to a point where he falls asleep, mid-interrogation, at one point.

What follows is a Gordian-knotted plot which sees Mackenzie conflicted about whether the chief suspect is truly the perpetrator, or a victim herself. The conflict is exacerbated by knife edge tensions among the investigators themselves.

The inside of Mackenzie’s head, struggling as it does to grasp what precisely it is about the murder that does not fit, would be sufficiently claustrophobic even without the sleeplessness casting a neon-lit, migraine-inducing glare. To this, May adds a saga of families forced from their homes for a new life of supposed opportunity in the New World. Both lines weave together, as elegantly as any Celtic knot, until May ties both ends off. The final result is a fascinating glimpse into a shameful and frequently overlooked aspect of British history. The author has followed the ties that spread out from the Hebrides to the strong Scottish Gaelic-speaking communities on North America’s eastern seaboard and used them to embellish a modern murder mystery. At times the material looks as thin as the hard soils of the islands many of the emigrants left behind, but May’s patient plaiting results in a richer tale than one might first suspect.