I’ve never read a book by Peter May before but have heard such enthusiastic opinions of his writing that I thought I would try his latest novel, Entry Island. Peter May’s most successful books take place in his native Scotland (although he has a series about a Chinese detective). For Entry Island however, Peter May crosses the Atlantic to Canada where he links a classic murder mystery with an account of the Scottish Highland Clearances of the 18th and 19th century, during which local populations were forcibly exiled to a new life in the Americas.
The story takes place in two locations. In the Magdalen Islands in the Gulf of St Lawrence a murder has taken place – a wealthy businessman has been knifed to death, the only witness being his wife who is also covered in blood and soon becomes the prime suspect. Two hundred years earlier we read of the forced clearances in the Scottish Outer Hebridean islands and the impact on one man in particular who flees to the Magdalen Islands, initiating a series of events which hold the key to the current murder.
The two stories run alongside each other and readers can see the gradual converging of events without realising quite how they are going to come together. The denouement when it comes is as satisfying as you might expect and left me full of admiration for Peter May’s skills as a writer with great skills in managing such a complex, multi-threaded plot.
As is often the case in books like this we have a highly dysfunctional detective in the person of Sime Mackenzie. Sime has had a series of difficult relationships and has recently suffered a broken marriage. He works in Montreal as an investigator and is surprised when he is called to his Captain’s office one day to be told that he is to join a team to investigate and apparently open and shut murder case on Île d’Entrée, an island in a small archipelago 850 miles away. Much to Sime’s dismay, the Captain tells him that the crime scene investigator is his ex-wife Marie-Ange, with whom he now has a very painful relationship.
Sime flies off with the investigation team and within 24 hours he finds himself interviewing the victim’s wife and main suspect, Kirsty Cowell. She blames the murder on an unknown intruder who broke into the house, attacking her husband and turning on her before fleeing into the garden. Although the police see Kirsty as the main suspect, the evidence is all circumstantial. Sime feels that while the evidence stacks up against Kirsty, there is something missing in the case against her. He also finds himself getting emotionally involved with the case as it sparks off resonances in his own personal history, with strange co-incidences and some vivid dreams.
Meanwhile back in Scotland, 200 years earlier, we read of another Simon, son of a crofter and another Kirsty, daughter of a wealthy land-owner who is appalled at what her family are doing to the poor villagers. Although these Scottish sections at first seem to intrude into the flow of the Canadian story, they are an essential lead-up to the convergence of two histories which resolve the murder mystery in a wholly unexpected way.
What lifts this book above being just another police-procedural is the quality of Peter May’s writing, in particular, his ability to evoke a vivid impression of life on the Magdalen Islands (and in the 18th century Outer Hebrides too). Anyone reading this book will want to find out more about the islands and there is a very good website which contains many pictures showing what the islands are really like.
A list of acknowledgements at the end of the book shows that Peter May conducted a vast amount of research before writing Entry Island. Peter May has surveyed a very large amount of material about the clearances and also tapped into a wealth of historical research into the history of the Magdalen Islands and the communities that settled there.