It seems you can take Peter May out of Scotland’s Outer Hebrides, but you can’t take the Outer Hebrides out of Peter May. After penning a Canada-set thriller titled Entry Island (2015), followed by Runaway (2016), about teenage musicians whose quest for rock-’n’-roll renown in London is seriously marred by murder, May returns, in his new standalone, Coffin Road, to the storm-swept chain of islands off Scotland’s west coast where he set the novel that gained him his greatest international recognition: The Blackhouse (which featured on my Best Crime Novels of 2012 list).
May’s association with the Outer Hebrides dates back at least to the 1990s, when this Glasgow-born writer worked on a small-screen UK soap opera called Machair, shot entirely on the Isle of Lewis. After striking it big with The Blackhouse—which imagined a young Edinburgh police detective, Fin Macleod, journeying back home to Lewis to investigate a homicide resembling one that’s recently taken place on the mainland—he employed that rugged setting again in two sequels: The Lewis Man (2014) and The Chessmen (2015). Neither Macleod nor his childhood sweetheart, Marsaili Morrison, appears in Coffin Road, and the weather backdropping this tale is less consistently daunting than in May’s Lewis Trilogy. However, readers enchanted by his previous portrayals of the Outer Hebrides as a remote, defiant locale where unexpected dangers lurk won’t be disappointed by this complicated new work of suspense.
The action starts swiftly when a man washes up on an Isle of Harris beach. He’s bruised, battered, chilled—and has no inkling of who he is or where he’s been. Fortunately, the locals seem to know him as Neal Maclean, and that he’s been staying at a cottage in the settlement of Luskentyre. A search of that residence fills in few blanks, but it does produce a well-used survey map of Harris, on which is prominently marked a cross-mountain route known as the Coffin Road. Thanks to a comely, married neighbor named Sally—who turns out, much to Maclean’s confusion, to be his clandestine inamorata—May’s protagonist soon learns that he’s an author laboring over a book about the adjacent Flannan Isles, from which a trio of lighthouse keepers vanished mysteriously in December 1900. Yet a search through Maclean’s laptop unearths no such manuscript. As puzzles pile atop one another, Maclean and Sally discover beehives secreted along the Coffin Road; and when our hero ventures out to the Flannan Isles to stimulate his memory, he discovers the corpse of a stranger—a gent Maclean fears he might have slain. While Detective Sergeant George Gunn (last seen in The Chessmen) descends upon that crime scene, May weaves still another plot thread into Coffin Road, this one concerning an unruly teenager, Karen Fleming, whose efforts to learn the fate of her scientist father, a reported suicide victim, will eventually lead her to the Outer Hebrides as well.
I took the opportunity recently to quiz 64-year-old May about this new novel’s background and the diverse studies involved in developing its plot.
How much research did you do into human memory loss in order to compose this tale, and what sources did you employ?
I didn’t know, when I began developing the idea, that I was looking at a case of dissociative amnesia. For the story to work, I needed the character’s memory loss ideally to display certain characteristics. My wife, also a writer, had written a story several years earlier about a woman suffering from memory loss, and when I described what I wanted to happen to my character she said, “That’s dissociative amnesia.” Having already done considerable research on the subject, she pointed me in the right direction, and I did extensive research on the Internet, reading case studies of sufferers, and clinical descriptions of the various symptoms displayed. It was really quite extraordinary how my scenario fitted so neatly into the clinical framework that describes dissociative amnesia—a condition brought about through mental stress or shock, rather than any physical trauma…a kind of blocking out of an unwanted experience.
In the novel, Maclean has told people he’s writing a book about the disappearance of three keepers from a prominent lighthouse on Eilean Mòr, one of the Flannan Isles. That’s a true story. When did you first hear about those missing men, and how long have you been thinking of some way to incorporate this 116-year-old mystery into one of your books?
I heard about the Flannan Isles lighthousemen more than 20 years ago, when I was filming a TV series in the Outer Hebrides. I read up about it at the time and thought it an intriguing subject for possible dramatization. But I had no sense then of how I might do that, so it got filed away in that box in my mind set aside for possible future development. Then when I started turning my mind towards Coffin Road, it all just fell neatly into place—particularly since I always like to incorporate real history from the islands when I write about them.
Can you speculate on what might have happened to lighthouse keepers Thomas Marshall, James Ducat, and Donald McArthur?
There are a number of theories, but the predominant one is the most likely—that for some reason, they went out onto the rock during a dreadful storm (possibly to secure kit at one of the landing stages), and got swept away by a giant wave. But there is an odd note that chimes discordantly in this theory. There was a rule, never to be broken, that one of the three would always remain in the lighthouse, no matter what. And the third man’s waterproofs were still hanging up inside the lighthouse. It is unthinkable that he would go out into the storm without them, so in the end there is no really watertight explanation for the disappearance of all three. Like all good real-life mysteries, it will almost certainly remain unexplained.
Your Lewis Trilogy emphasized the stormy weather one might experience in Scotland’s Outer Hebrides. Those islands sounded so bleak and unwelcoming. Coffin Road, though, makes the Isle of Harris sound like a rather fine vacation spot. Were you merely looking for an environmental contrast between your trilogy and this new novel, or were you feeling guilty enough about having made the Hebrides sound dreary, that you decided you should make up for that in these pages?
I certainly never held back in my descriptions of the dominating force that the weather can be in the Outer Hebrides when I wrote the trilogy. But I have no guilt about that. Those books have been responsible for a tourist invasion of the islands, with more than 70 cruise liners docking at the tiny fishing port of Stornoway this summer alone. When it came to writing about the Isle of Harris, I was just as uncompromising. But the truth is that if you were dropped out of the blue onto the west coast of South Harris, you would think you were in the Caribbean. Silver sands, turquoise sea, and in the good weather the most stunning sunrises and sunsets. There are, however, two major differences between Harris and the Caribbean. The temperature is one. And the other is that you can walk for miles along those silver sands and never meet another soul.
Part of the mystery in Coffin Road turns on modern agricultural pesticides and the serious damage they are doing to bees—insects that are very important to the long-term health of humankind. How long have you been interested in this subject? And how careful did you have to be when writing about the bee dilemma, that you didn’t allow the rather alarming science to overwhelm your fictional tale?
I’ve been interested in the phenomenon of disappearing bees for years. It was a particular obsession of my longtime genetics adviser, professor Joe Cummins in Canada. Reading several of his early papers on the subject (he was the first scientist to address the European Parliament on the topic) really alarmed me, and I knew there was a story to be written. But it wasn’t until I met a research scientist in Dundee, Scotland, Dr. Chris Connolly, that things began to fall into the place for me. After many years of argument and debate about what was causing the disappearance of bees, Dr. Connolly was the scientist who finally provided the smoking gun—proof that it was being caused by a certain group of pesticides known as neonicotinoids. His research proved that a pesticide called imidacloprid destroyed brain cells in bees, causing them to lose their memory. And without memory, bees cannot function. They need to be able to navigate their way to and from sources of food, and communicate those directions to others by means of an elaborate dance. Take away their memory and none of that is possible. The colony, or hive, collapses and the bees die. And by pure coincidence, this fitted perfectly with an idea I’d had for a man washed up on a Hebridean beach suffering from memory loss—the perfect metaphor. Of course, the writer always has to be careful that his research and subject matter are woven seamlessly into the fabric of the story, so that it is always the drama that takes precedence. In this case it was a delicate line to tread, but I felt that it was worth the risks involved to make people aware of the dangers of these pesticides, and the lengths their manufacturers will go to in order to hide the truth.
Was it enjoyable, or more of a challenge, to write about a character who has forgotten who he is and what he does, and then have him slowly ascertain truths about his life—and the other people in that life—at the same time as the reader does? Were you ever surprised by the situations he got himself into or how he reacted to those situations?
It was a thoroughly enjoyable voyage of discovery. And I chose to write it in a slightly unconventional way—first person, present tense. That allowed me, and the reader, to be inside [Maclean’s] head as he began trying to piece together his past and who he was. And, of course, there are things you only think about when you are actually writing—about how it might feel to look in the mirror and see a stranger looking back at you, and yet know that the stranger is you. To take at face value your relationship with the young couple who live next door, until in a stolen moment she kisses you, and you realize you have been having an affair with her. To believe you are about to meet your wife and daughter, only to realize that you are not who you thought you were, neither husband nor father.
Is there really a wonderfully named Coffin Road on Harris?
Yes, the Coffin Road is a track that runs over the mountains of Harris from the east coast to the west. It’s about nine kilometers long. I walked it myself on a particularly stormy day. The track derives from the fact that soil on the east coast of the island is so thin that you hit bedrock just a few inches down. Which meant that folk living on the east coast had no way of burying their dead. So they carried the coffins over the Coffin Road to the west coast where the soft, sandy, fertile soil is perfect for digging graves.
So what are you writing next? And will that story again take place in the Outer Hebrides?
I’m just coming towards the end of a sabbatical year in which I have done no writing at all. But I will sit down shortly to begin work on the first of three books, possibly a trilogy, and probably set again on the Hebrides. But it is still in a very embryonic state in my mind, and who knows, I might yet go off in another direction altogether.
Photo: Author Peter May at Stornoway Harbor, on the Isle of Lewis.