There is a certain pleasure (however smug) in being ahead of the curve when spotting a particularly gifted writer, and a certain regret when the masses catch up with your discovery. The latter, of course, is the state desired by author and publisher, and Peter May has now made the transition from connoisseurs’ taste to popular bestseller.
The Blackhouse, the first entry in the author’s acclaimed trilogy set on the Hebridean Isle of Lewis, combined acute evocation of locale with a palpable sense of the past – a combination not as common in crime fiction as one might think. After finishing the “Lewis” sequence with last year’s Chessmen, May vowed not to visit the territory again, but does his new book, the weighty 500-odd page Entry Island, give the lie to that statement?
In Montreal detective Sime Mackenzie, we’re presented with a very familiar figure: the bitter and lonely cop who finds a certain grim fulfilment in his pursuit of murderers. Sime is more than happy to board a light aircraft and undertake a journey of nearly 900 miles northeast to the bleak titular island in the Gulf of St Lawrence. This forbidding place is inhabited by only a hundred or so islanders, one of whom – the most moneyed – has been bludgeoned to death. When Sime encounters Kirsty Cowell, the widow of the victim – and prime suspect – he has the strongest feeling that he somehow knows her. And the case is to change his life irrevocably.
If the premise makes it sound like May is treading familiar water, nothing could be further from the truth. Apart from the customarily vivid, often poetic passages of description (“A crescent of silver sand curls away towards the cemetery and the standing stones on the rise”), Entry Island is shot through with the dark legacy of history. The quotidian details of the murder case, and the all-too-familiar squabbling detectives, are counterpointed with the difficult existence of the island’s crofters, eking out a living while their landlords enjoy a very different lifestyle.
Crucial to the narrative are the historical “Highland clearances” of the 18th century: the savage expulsion of crofters, already victims of the potato famine, from their land in Scotland. With quiet authority, May marries the scars of past injustice with the damaged psyches of his central characters – and not just the troubled detective at the centre of a web of betrayal. Those who regretted that May had written finis to his Lewis trilogy will be pleased that he has found an allied subject matter that clearly energises him as powerfully.