Donning the shoes of a mystery man

By Stephen Jewell

Scottish writer Peter May tells Stephen Jewell about returning to his homeland for his latest novel and putting himself into his character’s mind.
I now enjoy writing about Scotland because I feel a certain amount of freedom to be able to not write about it blindly, and to write about it critically if I want to - Peter May.
I now enjoy writing about Scotland because I feel a certain amount of freedom to be able to not write about it blindly, and to write about it critically if I want to - Peter May.

"The funny thing is that I didn't really start writing about Scotland until I left."

The author of the bestselling Lewis Trilogy, Peter May spent long stints living on the Isle of Lewis in the 1990s while working as a scriptwriter and producer on the Scottish Television series, Machair.

However, he hadn't considered setting a crime novel on the picturesque island in the Outer Hebrides, until he moved to southwest France some years later. Now, after exploring Canada's Scottish diaspora in 2013's Entry Island and tapping into his own Glasgow childhood in last year's Runaway, the 64-year-old has returned to the region with his latest book, Coffin Road, which takes place on the neighbouring Isle of Harris.

"When you live in a particular place, you tend to not see it very clearly," he says. "You're not objective about it, and it takes a little bit of time and distance before you can look back with a certain amount of objectivity and write about it from a perspective of not only knowing it well, but also being able to see it from afar.

"I now enjoy writing about Scotland because I feel a certain amount of freedom to be able to not write about it blindly, and to write about it critically if I want to."

Despite the familiar wind and rain-swept milieu, May warns that Coffin Road isn't a direct continuation of the Lewis Trilogy.

"Those books were so successful and I've had such a reaction from readers, who are desperate for me to go back there," he says. "I wouldn't have gone back there if I didn't feel that I had a story that fitted that setting but readers who are expecting more of the same won't get that. They'll get the Hebrides again, which they really love, but otherwise it's a very different type and tenor of story."

However, the one common element is the reappearance of local policeman George Gunn. May needed a police officer for the story in Coffin Road and figured he might as well use the detective sergeant he had created for the trilogy, who was based at Stornaway station. "He wasn't the primary character in the Lewis Trilogy and, as he's the island policeman he already existed, so why not use him again?"

With the narrative divided between three separate characters, including Gunn and rebellious Edinburgh teenager Karen Fleming, Coffin Road represents something of a stylistic departure for May.

"Very often in my books, my perspective tends to be from a single person, which makes them filmic in a sense. But with this book, I was almost going back to my TV roots, where you jump cut from character to character, story strand to story strand, and then bring them altogether at the end.

I quite enjoyed writing that kind of structured story."

The novel opens with its main protagonist washing up on a beach with no idea of his true identity, so it also utilises one of the oldest tropes in crime fiction. May says he was well aware that memory loss is a device that has been used many times in literature and movies but he took a slightly different approach to it by writing in the first person present tense, so readers are 100 per cent with him.

Worried he might be responsible for a murder, Neil Maclean - as the character initially calls himself - makes for a "100 per cent" unreliable narrator, says May.

"We're inside his head as he starts learning about himself, so we share his learning, his fears, his frustrations, uncertainty and confusion, as the whole thing starts to unfold. It was a fascinating thing for me to do, writing-wise, because I really had to put myself inside his head and go through all his emotions with him as these things happened to him.

"Even down to seeing himself in the mirror for the first time and not recognising himself, and thinking 'how weird would that be?' I had to put myself in his shoes and write about how he feels about that. I've probably never been that deeply inside a single character before, so it was an interesting experience."

Taking its name from an ancient path to a burial site, Coffin Road also incorporates a real life mystery as it alludes to the three lighthouse keepers who inexplicably disappeared during a ferocious storm on the even more remote Flannan Isles in December 1900.

"When I wrote The Lewis Trilogy, I tried to feature some aspect of Hebridean life or culture in each of those books, and this is just following in that same tradition," says May, who also refers to the islands' Gaelic heritage. "If you're going to write a story set there, you can't ignore that because Gaelic is the culture and the language. It's shaped everything, so it's absolutely inherent to the place, so you can't not take account of Gaelic and make it a part of the story. That's just how it is there."

As its dedication "for the bees" confirms, environmental concerns lie at the heart of Coffin Road's core mystery. May says he doesn't think he can hide the fact that the story is motivated by the plight of the bees, but how that ties in with the story is something learned as you're reading.

He draws parallels between his central character's loss of memory and similar neurological problems suffered by bees because of exposure to certain pesticides. "That was my way of unpacking the story and also a metaphor for the motivation behind the story itself."

Insisting that he "doesn't want to spread scare stories," May claims the bee could become extinct within a decade, highlighting how a third of the American bee population has vanished in the last five years and two-thirds have gone in areas where so-called neonicotinoid pesticides are in use.

"The rate of disappearance is almost exponential," he says. "We're not going to die out but without the bee the human race is in big trouble, as the bee is directly responsible for putting one fork of food out of every three into our mouths, and, in addition to that, there's all the meat and dairy production, which couldn't be sustained if you took the alfalfa and clover crops away."

Revealing that he has "not had any contact with them yet but I expect that there will be", May is waiting for a response from the real life agro-chemical companies that provided the inspiration for Coffin Road's fictional corporate conspiracy.

"They're in utter denial, and are doing absolutely everything they can to discredit any science that shows their pesticides are responsible for this,"he says. "They're spending huge amounts of moneyon political lobbying and diffusion of misinformation, and also withdrawing funding from any scientist who produces results that are not promoting their product. It's a classic situation, and they're like the big tobacco companies
before them. They'll do anything, as they're only interested in making money and they don't care about the human race. So I was very motivated, as you can tell!"

The Dunedin Writers & Readers Festival and the Centre of Irish & Scottish Studies at the University of Otago present an evening with Peter May, 6pm, Thursday, February 25, Dunedin City Library. Tickets: $15 from the University Book Shop

- Canvas

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