A man is washed up on a cold day, face down on the beach on the Isle of Harris, one of the islands in the Outer Hebrides. As he tastes the sea in his mouth notes the scratchiness of the sand he realises that he doesn’t know who he is! And so starts the latest of Peter May’s novels, this one returning to the Scottish Isles. At first I thought it was going to be more similar to the Lewis Trilogy than was actually the case as it turns out the man in the sea was writing a novel about three missing lighthouse keepers back at the turn of the twentieth century. Three men who disappeared without a trace leaving the light to go out in the lighthouse with no clue to where they went. But the mystery central to this book is in the far more recent past than that tale.
In all we are told the story from the viewpoint of the man who has been renting a cottage on the Isle of Harris, Neal Maclean. From talking to his neighbours he learns that he has been making frequent trips back and forth to the Flannan Isles where the lighthouse stands, but there is no substance to his manuscript, just chapter headings. He takes a boat over to visit following his amnesia setting in to try and jog his memory but instead he finds something that is far more unwelcome.
Meanwhile, or maybe before or after as no timelines are given, a rebellious teenager in Edinburgh is struggling to come to terms with her mother’s new lover following her husband’s suicide two years before. Karen Fleming is losing her way and following an angry exchange of words with her mother decides to find out more about her father so pays her godfather a visit and starts a trail of discovery into the man, his life, his work and his death.
DS George Gunn is stationed on the Isle of Lewis when a shout comes in about a dead body on one of the smaller islands and he sets off with his partner to investigate but there is a problem, he has no idea who the dead man is let alone a motive for his murder.
Peter May a master storyteller, the tension is maintained in a variety of ways, not least the unreliability of two of the narrators, whether intentional or not. The secondary characters are no less dodgy in their reporting to the main characters and I began to feel a little like Neal Maclean at times, unsure whether up was down or vice versus. However the clues are there if you can spot them! This book also gives a bit of a lecture from the mouth of Chris, Karen’s godfather into the ecosystem and the role of the big agrochem companies in maintaining the right balance. Normally a preachy book, on any subject brings me out of the storyline in annoyance but this information was given at the right level and was relevant at the time of the discussion, which meant that it was interesting and melded into the plot seamlessly.
As always Peter May’s love of the Outer Hebrides shines through, the descriptions of the place were exceptionally evocative and I was instantly able to visualise the island including The Coffin Road where the island’s dead used to be carried in years gone by.
A satisfying and interesting read with interesting but because of the very nature of the tale, nebulous characters this is not a book to miss for those who want something a little bit more thoughtful than the run of the mill crime fiction novel.
Coffin Road will be published on 14 January 2016 by Quercus. I was lucky enough to receive a copy via Midas PR and if you visit next week I have a special post and a copy of this book for one lucky winner!