There is a certain pleasure (however smug) in being ahead of the curve when spotting a particularly gifted writer; and there is a certain regret when the mass of readers catch up with your discovery (the latter, of course, is the state desired by both author and publisher). Peter May has now firmly made the transition from connoisseurs’ taste to popular bestseller. The Blackhouse, the first entry in the author’s much acclaimed trilogy set on the Isle of Lewis, combined acute evocation of locale with a palpable sense of the past — a combination not as common in crime fiction as one might think. After finishing the ‘Lewis’ sequence, May vowed not to visit the territory again, but does his new book, the weighty 500-odd page Entry Island, give the lie to that statement?

In Montreal detective Sime Mackenzie, we’re presented with a very familiar figure: the bitter and lonely cop who finds a certain grim fulfilment in his work, the pursuit of murderers. Sime is more than happy to board a light aircraft and undertake a journey of nearly 900 miles to the Gulf of St Lawrence. Accompanied by an investigation team of seven other officers, his destination is the bleak and isolated Entry Island of the title. This forbidding landscape is inhabited by only a hundred or so islanders, one of whom – the most moneyed – has been bludgeoned to death. When Sime encounters Kirsty Cowell, the widow of the victim (and prime suspect), he has the strongest feeling that he somehow knows her (although they have never met). And the case is to change his life irrevocably.

If the murder investigation premise sounds like Peter May is treading familiar water, nothing could be further from the truth. Apart from the customarily vivid passages of description, often poetic (‘A crescent of silver sand curls away towards the cemetery and the standing stones on the rise’), Entry Island is shot through with the dark legacy of history. The quotidian details of the murder case (and the all-too-familiar squabbling detectives) is counterpointed with the difficult existence of the island’s crofters, eking out a living while their landlords enjoy a very different lifestyle. Crucial to the narrative are the historical ‘Highland clearances’, the savage ejection of the crofters, already victims of the potato famine. With quiet authority, May marries the scars of past injustice with the damaged psyches of his central characters — and not just the troubled detective at the centre of a web of betrayal. Those who regretted that May had written finis to his Lewis trilogy will be pleased that he has found an allied subject matter that clearly energises him just as powerfully.

Entry Island by Peter May

Quercus, £16.99

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