Published: 13/01/2014 09:33 - Updated: 16/01/2014 16:51

REVIEW: Entry Island by Peter May

Writer Peter May pictured on the real-life Entry Island.
Writer Peter May pictured on the real-life Entry Island.

Peter May’s powerful Blackhouse trilogy of Lewis crime thrillers has earned him awards and bestseller status over the past few years.

So the pressure might have been on to come up with something to match - or better - them.

And just how do you please those still pining for the trilogy's Fin Macleod, his story and his Lewis?

Cleverly, Entry Island (Quercus, £16.99) soothes Blackhouse fans. Peter May offers up not one but two islands (and Lewis is one). There are also two timelines - and this time the writer swaps from detective Fin with his gloomy past to Sime (said "Sheem") Mackenzie ... who seems more likely to have a gloomy future.

The Canadian detective’s suffering from a nasty case of messy romantic fallout.

It’s spilled over into his job in Montreal – on top of that, he has a bad case of insomnia too.

So when Sime’s called to travel over 800 miles to the small, mainly English-speaking Entry Island as part of a murder investigation team, it should be an escape.

Sime’s Scottish ancestry has given him better English skills than his mainly French-speaking colleagues.

So he’s been assigned to interview the main witness and chief suspect, the wife of the murdered man.

But when Sime first meets Kirsty Cowell, he’s instantly convinced they have met before:

... He heard the slow tick, tick of an old pendulum clock on the mantel, and saw motes of dust suspended in the light that slanted through the windows. He saw her lips move, but there was no sound. They moved again in silence, forming words he couldn't hear, until he became aware suddenly of the irritation in her voice. 'Hello? Is there anyone home?' And it was as if someone had released the pause button and his world wound back up to speed. But the confusion remained.

He said, 'I'm sorry. You are ...?'

He saw her consternation now. 'Kirsty Cowell. They said you wanted to interview me'

And out of his turmoil he heard himself saying, 'I know you.'

She frowned. 'I don't think so.'

But he knew he did. Not where, or how, or when. But with an absolute certainty...

A weird coincidence is shared by the couple. Plus, Sime's growing sense that Kirsty is innocent means he is pulled to follow his gut instincts rather than his boss's orders to get things cleared up quickly.

At the same time that he’s getting to grips with suspects from the present, tales from Sime's Lewis ancestor’s diaries from generations back return to him in sharp focus.

Peter May’s investigators are often outsiders, often aliens in a foreign community. It’s a good device for opening our eyes to an unfamiliar world as they work to solve crimes.

American pathologist Margaret Campbell was partnered with Chinese policeman Li Yan in May’s mostly Beijing-set six China thrillers. Enzo Macleod, the Scottish pathologist turned lecturer, is based in South West France in the five Enzo files. And city detective Fin Macleod returned to his home island of Lewis for the Blackhouse series with an exile’s eye for the life and people he once knew so well as a youngster.

But as well as introducing us to the real-life Entry Island in the Gulf of the St Lawrence river, May wants to take us back to the past.

He creates a haunting, so-real-you-can-almost-taste-it flavour of what it was like to experience the brutal Clearances lived through on Lewis. Those sections come to us in the first person - the powerful "I" voice making the cruelty and fear even more real. There’s also a horrific account of the journey the dispossessed crofters were forced to take across the Atlantic.

As ever, from the former journalist, scriptwriter and TV producer, the pacing, scene-setting and character development are played out at a cracking speed to keep the pages turning.

May deftly steers between past and present, Scotland and Canada, Sime and his ancestor, real history and sparely-written, fast-moving fiction. Adding in a spine-tingling, almost supernatural twist of fate, brings two distant island worlds together across the centuries.

Though it's probable Sime and his unfolding backstory is a one-off read, the character has more than enough stamina to survive a future of continuing investigations, if May and his fans choose it.

Margaret Chrystall

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