What I love about writing is that an author can spend a lifetime in dogged pursuit of their own fears and fascinations. Some nail it with their first novel and some never find it, but when they corner the subject and theme they were born to write, they never look back.
You get the sense that Peter May really found his lifelong subject when he wrote his Lewis trilogy – The Blackhouse, The Lewis Man, The Chessmen – about a copper who must confront the demons of his past when he returns to the Isle of Lewis to find a murderer. The desolate Hebridean island, with its weather system that changes from moment to moment, was the dominant character in the trilogy. May wrote about the place with passion and pride.
His latest novel, Entry Island, is a kind of a companion piece to those three books. Please have your boarding passes ready for the blurb:
When Detective Sime Mackenzie boards a light aircraft at Montreal’s St. Hubert airfield, he does so without looking back. For Sime, the 850-mile journey ahead represents an opportunity to escape the bitter blend of loneliness and regret that has come to characterise his life in the city.
Travelling as part of an eight-officer investigation team, Sime’s destination lies in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. Only two kilometres wide and three long, Entry Island is home to a population of around 130 inhabitants – the wealthiest of which has just been discovered murdered in his home.
The investigation itself appears little more than a formality. The evidence points to a crime of passion: the victim’s wife the vengeful culprit. But for Sime the investigation is turned on its head when he comes face to face with the prime suspect, and is convinced that he knows her – even though they have never met.
Haunted by this certainty his insomnia becomes punctuated by dreams of a distant past on a Scottish island 3,000 miles away. Dreams in which the widow plays a leading role. Sime’s conviction becomes an obsession. And in spite of mounting evidence of her guilt he finds himself convinced of her innocence, leading to a conflict between the professonal duty he must fulfil, and the personal destiny that awaits him.
Entry Island is a curious beast. It looks like a crime novel and feels like a crime novel, and indeed a murder is a catalyst for the events in the book, but it’s also a historical novel and a darkly romantic tale of unfulfilled destiny. Much of the contemporary action is set on the titular island in the Magdalens, more than 800-miles off Canada. Entry Island is like a mirror-image of May’s beloved Hebrides. There’s that same sense of isolation, and of a traditional way of life coming to an end.
Sime (pronounced Sheem) Mackenzie is a typically dislocated character, an insomniac forced to work alongside his embittered former wife and as distanced from his work-colleagues as Entry Island is from the Canadian mainland. Sime’s murder investigation unfolds enjoyably, the suspects are introduced and motives become ever murkier, but it’s Sime’s growing obsession with his own ancestry that May seems really interested in.
Sime’s overpowering feeling that he knows Kirsty Cowell, the murder suspect, dredges up buried memories of his namesake ancestor’s journey from Lewis as part of the Highland Clearances, when men, women and children from the Hebrides were forcibly removed from their homes and sent to the New World – many never survived the awful conditions on the ships that took them across the Atlantic. The Highland Clearances are a shocking backdrop to a romance between two young people separated by class and wealth.
To his surprise, this reader found himself more engaged with these two-hundred-year-old events. It’s dramatic life-and-death stuff that often threatens to engulf the self-absorbed Sime’s modern day story.
As usual, May’s fascination and passion for the Hebrides, and its rich and turbulent history, shines through. It’s good, solid storytelling that unfolds in careful, polished prose – the attention to detail is second to none. If you’re looking for thrills at a breakneck speed, Entry Island is perhaps not for you. It’s not a book that moves at a thousand miles an hour, and climactic momentum arrives perhaps a little too late to the party, but the conclusion to both storylines is satisfying.
In Entry Island the author has found another isolated and windswept location – is there a writer more meteorologically fastidious than May? And I liked the way Sime’s affinity with his unlucky ancestor is left unexplained, so that you get only the merest hint of a greater design pulling the two strands of the story together.
I’m happy to say that Peter May will be talking about Entry Island here on the blog on Friday!
Many thanks to Cecilia Keating at Midas PR for the review copy.