- Publish Date
- Thursday, 25 January 2018, 1:57PM
- By Stephanie Jones
The Outer Hebrides, the island chain off Scotland’s west coast, have long been a lure irresistible to filmmakers and wordsmiths, with one travel writer finding the disjointed thread of land to be “rinsed by a charm as pure as the spread of light off the Atlantic.” The late author Iain Banks was a regular at a café in Barra, and his dying wish was for some of his ashes to be scattered at one of the island’s beaches.
Amid the often unremarkable events described in his latest crime thriller, I’ll Keep You Safe, Peter May proffers a sketch, both moody and endearing, of the topography, people and culture of the Hebridean island of Lewis, a setting he revisits after the considerable commercial and critical success of the Lewis Trilogy (The Blackhouse (2009), The Lewis Man (2011) and The Chessmen (2012)).
Compared with the magnetism of the land, where French police lieutenant Sophie Braque, a product of the teeming streets of Paris, confronts “[m]ies of barren peat bog as far as the eye could see”, the story is underwhelming. There’s bad history between the families of Niamh (pronounced Neave) and Ruairidh (Roo-are-ee; the novel is prefaced with a handy guide to the pronunciation of common Gaelic names), who have known each other since childhood, and hostilities do not cease when the two eventually marry.
To everyone’s relief, the couple is spending less time on Lewis and more in Europe, and the novel’s opening puts them in Paris, where they are spruiking their proprietary fabric, Ranish Tweed, at the world’s largest fabric fair. Niamh receives an anonymous email telling her that Ruairidh is having an affair with a fashion designer, Irina Vetrov, and minutes later her husband is killed – by a bomb that explodes beneath Irina’s car, in which he is a passenger.
The prime suspect, Niamh is told, is Irina’s husband Georgy, “a brute of a man” who is being sought by police. Readers will be unsurprised to learn that cuckoldry has nothing to do with it, and indeed, the mediocre thriller storyline doesn’t seem to interest May much either: the novel is enlivened when the narrative shifts from the third-person account of the crime and its investigation to Niamh’s first-hand reminiscence about her Lewis childhood – the subsistence-based economy, her grandfather’s croft house, coming of age in a place where no one locks their doors.
All told, I’ll Keep You Safe suggests May’s dislike of pigeon-holing (likewise, his 2016 book, Coffin Road, partly concerned the conflict between corporate imperatives and scientific independence). It doesn’t defy categorisation, but the substantial portion of the novel most accurately described as memoir makes it an unconventional crime story, and when May brings it all back around to the origins of the clans’ mutual antipathy, Shakespearean and ghastly, the tone shifts again.
How the story of the marriage wraps up will strike some as preposterous and others as justly romantic – and a few may recall a particular twist in Dennis Lehane’s tumultuous Since We Fell. Like a Hebridean, May is charting his own course.
Every week Stephanie reviews the Book of the Week.
As the Coast book reviewer, Stephanie Jones shares her thoughts each week on the latest releases.
Stephanie has a BA (Hons) in history and English literature, and a background in journalism, magazine publishing, public relations and corporate and consumer communications.
Stephanie is a contributor to the New Zealand Book Council’s ‘Talking Books’ podcast series (listen here), and a member of the 2016 Ngaio Marsh Award judging panel. She can be found on Twitter @ParsingThePage.
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