This review was previously published on ShinyNewBooks.co.uk.
If you had killed someone you would remember. Wouldn’t you?
In his latest novel, which it goes without saying will be absolutely huge, his legion of fans will be delighted to see Peter May return to the Outer Hebrides, the setting which made him a huge star with the Lewis Trilogy. However, this one is not, I’m afraid, a police procedural featuring Finn Macleod and Marsaili – but please don’t let that put you off. Coffin Road is just as gripping a novel as any of his other works, far more ambitious and with a wider scope than the previous Lewis novels. It’s a book which will eventually bring together three seemingly unconnected people…and see their lives put at risk.
It opens with a man waking on a beach on Harris, wearing a lifejacket, not knowing who he is or what he’s doing there. Investigations in what is his nearby home (he’s helped there by a concerned neighbour) reveal his name is Neal Maclean. Neighbours arrive who he’s seemingly invited for a drink – Jon and Sally – and Sally rapidly makes it clear that Neal and she are having an affair behind Jon’s back. They ask how the book is coming along – Neal was apparently writing a book about the Flannan Isles mystery, which saw three lighthouse keepers disappear without a trace in 1900. Feigning tiredness, Neal gets rid of his visitors, and checks his computer. There are indeed pages and chapter headings for a book – but absolutely no text. What is Neal really doing in Harris? Turning the house upside down, he finds a well-used map marking a nearby path called the Coffin Road. It is the only clue he has to why he is on Harris, and decides to investigate it, along with Sally. But I’m not going to reveal what they discover there…That night Neal is attacked in his house by a man with a knife who seems intent on killing him. However, a second intruder intervenes and saves his life, but both are gone before Neal can figure out who they are or what their respective agendas are. What exactly is Neal involved in that puts his life in danger?
He decides to hire a RIB – his own boat having been lost when he washed up on the shore at the start – to go out to the Flannan Isles, as according to Jon and Sally he had made a number of trips there. While there, he discovers a brutally murdered man in the chapel below the lighthouse, and, terrified he could have been responsible, leaves the Isles immediately. Unfortunately, some tourists arriving shortly after him see him leave in a hurry, and the boat owner knows Neal.
Given the job of investigating the Flannan Isles murder is DS George Gunn (who briefly appeared in The Black House.) Is the man he knows as Neal MacLean, who has been living on the island for the past 18 months, writing, and going back and forwards to the Flannan Isles regularly, a murderer? If not, why do both he and the murder victim have bee stings on their hands?
Simultaneously, down in Edinburgh, a 17-year-old, Karen Fleming, is lost and rebellious since her scientist father’s suicide two years earlier. But she is given solid evidence by her godfather that he faked his death – but why would an apparently doting father do that? So Karen leaves home, searching for answers that will hopefully lead her to him. Her journey takes her to London, Glasgow, and eventually the Highlands, putting her in danger. Is her father really alive? If so, why the cloak-and-dagger disappearance if he loved her as much as he claimed to?
This book takes us places we really don’t expect – into the realms of big business and big money, biology and huge research grants where the findings are expected to be what the company want them to be. There are spies and conspiracies, and people who will do anything – even kill – to keep anyone who knows too much quiet. It’s a murder investigation, and it’s And, throughout, May’s love of the Outer Hebrides shines through – the weather, the sea, the flora and fauna. It makes for a gripping thriller, with a nail-biter of a climax that will guarantee you’re unable to put it down. This one’s definitely not to be missed, but that goes without saying – it is a Peter May, after all!