Entry Island by Peter May

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Reviewed by Harriet Devine

I’d never read anything by Peter May when this book was sent me for review. The first thing that struck me was that Peter May must have a thing about islands. The Lewis trilogy is set in the Outer Hebrides, and Entry Island takes place in the equally remote Magdalen Islands in the Gulf of St Lawrence. Or part of it does. The other part takes place in the Outer Hebrides. For this is a novel of two halves, as I understand the Lewis books are too.

This story concerns Detective Simon Mackenzie, known as Sime, which is apparently pronounced Sheem as it is the Gaelic version of his name. Sime, who is based in Montreal, is called out to help investigate a murder on Entry Island. He is needed mainly for his English speaking ability, because Entry is the only island in the archipelago that is not French speaking. Sime is actually bi-lingual, while the rest of the team are Francophone. Sime is of Scottish descent, and his family is proud of his Gaelic roots, his great great great grandfather having travelled unwillingly to Canada from Scotland during the Highland clearances of the mid-nineteenth century.

With me so far? All this background is actually highly relevant to the plot of the story. When Sime meets the prime suspect, the beautiful Kirsty Cowell, he is puzzled by a strong feeling that he already knows her. The mystery intensifies when he discovers that she has an engraved pendant which bears the same coat of arms as a ring he has inherited from his father. Aware that the solution to the mystery must lie in his family’s past, he spends the long hours of the night — for he has chronic insomnia — revisiting in his mind the stories in his ancestor’s diary, which his granny used to read to him when he was a child.

For a long time this seems like two separate novels in one cover, as while half the book concerns the murder investigation, at least as much time is spent on the history of the 19th century Sime Mackenzie and his childhood sweetheart Kirsty Guthrie, daughter of the Laird of Lewis Island and the man responsible for sending the islanders over to Canada. Of course in the end, the two stories manage to merge, and the past history proves to be highly relevant to the present investigation, though you’ll have to read the novel to find out how.

Peter May obviously enjoys his historical research, and I learned a lot about the Scottish and Canadian past from the novel. I did not exactly guess the identity of the murderer, though I began to have a pretty strong suspicion as the end of the novel approached.

This is a highly readable novel, full of fascinating facts both about present-day Canada and about the Highland Clearances, a rather upsetting aspect of Scotland’s past. The story whips along excitingly, the island is evoked most vividly, and poor tortured Sime (he not only suffers from chronic insomnia but is forced to work alongside his ex-wife and her current lover) is, if not the most cheerful of protagonists, certainly an interesting character. So I hope I can be forgiven for a bit of a quibble. I did find the idea of Sime’s apparently perfect recall of the contents of diaries his granny read to him in his childhood a bit hard to swallow, and indeed the fact that his ancestor managed to write the diaries at such length and under such terrible circumstances rather strained my credulity. But hey, let’s allow the man some dramatic licence.

If you’ve loved Peter May in the past, you’re definitely going to love this, which is newly out in paperback. And if you haven’t, it would be a great place to start.  Go for it.

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Harriet Devine is one of the editors of Shiny New Books.

Peter May, Entry Island (Quercus, London: 2014). 978-1782062233, 544 pp., paperback.

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