Written by Peter May — A brand-new standalone from the pen of Peter May is always going to be near the top of a crime fiction reader’s wish list, and in many ways Coffin Road doesn’t disappoint. It certainly begins dramatically enough, as a man washes up on a beach. He is wearing a life jacket, is battered and bruised – and has no idea who he is or where he has landed.
Luckily he is spotted by the neighbourhood busybody, and a short, if circumspect, chat soon establishes his name and address. So now he is safe and warm in what an old electricity bill reveals to be Dune Cottage, in Luskentyre on the Isle of Harris – but Neal Maclean is still no closer to knowing anything about himself or how he came to experience his recent maritime adventure.
The only clue is a well-thumbed Ordnance Survey map of Harris, with a route sketched out in marker pen. Locals call it the Coffin Road and Neal and his neighbour Sally follow it the next day. The hidden beehives they discover seem familiar to Neal – but what are they doing there? And do they have any bearing on his past life? He has apparently been posing as an author, writing a book about the nearby Flannan Isles, but a search of Neal’s laptop unearths a Word document containing no words whatsoever. What on earth is he doing in this remote spot?
Just as the tension and mystery are ratcheting up nicely, May takes us down another path entirely. Meet Karen, a rebellious teenager close to breaking point. It is two years since her father committed suicide and now her mother is shacked up with another man. Karen is still hurting inside, but hides her grief behind an impenetrable shield of body piercings and tattoos. Her school work is suffering and she is on the edge of exclusion. What possible part can she have to play in all this?
Plot strand number three comes in the shape of Detective Sergeant George Gunn, who is called out to Eileen Mor, a remote rock 20 miles west of the Outer Hebrides. It is a place where three lighthouse keepers vanished without trace a century earlier – and now the wind and sea-battered site of a murder. It is also a place Neal Maclean visited frequently to research his non-existent book and he soon becomes suspect number one – and with his memory still a blank, the amnesiac fears that he could have been the perpetrator.
Coffin Road is a complex – perhaps over-complicated – thriller. The story perspective bounces around like a demented ping pong ball and it might have you checking back to make sure you’ve read things correctly. Two days after finishing the book, I was still bothered by one scene and went back to peruse it again. Thankfully this time the pieces fell into place and I felt a little less dissatisfied.
The sweeping scenery is exquisitely described by an author who excels in creating a sense of place. May is a master at scene setting and the chapter when Gunn is suffering seasickness on his way to Eileen Mor had me feeling a little green around the gills too! Bees play a very important role in the story. The facts are not laboured upon and at no time did I feel I was being preached to but I learned a great deal about them, and their importance to mankind as a whole, as I read. If you keep your wits about you, it’s a book you’ll enjoy.
If you like the sound of Coffin Road, you may also enjoy Peter May’s Lewis Trilogy. We reviewed the final book in that set – The Chessmen – in 2013 and you can read the article here. Coffin Road is released 14 January.
CFL Rating: 4 Stars