by Margaret Chrystall
THEY say ‘walk a mile in my shoes’ if you want to get inside someone else’s life.
And as well as walking Harris’s Coffin Road – title of Peter May’s newly-published thriller – in the sleet of a spring gale, the wind almost blowing him over, the writer also wanted to get inside the head of his hero, a man washed up on the beach with no clue about who he is.
“Or even what he looks like, until he looks in the mirror,” said Peter, whowas in Inverness on Tuesday to talk about what may well be his first eco-thriller.
Peter said: “I decided the reader had to be with him and the best way was to write first person present tense so we are right inside his head, discovering and seeing things as he does.
“Writing it that way gave me that same perspective and let me slip into that persona and discover the world as he was discovering it.”
Peter laughs: “It was quite fun imagining what it would feel like not to know what you look like and seeing yourself in the mirror for the first time going ‘God is THAT what I look like?’ Is that me?’ because the features are not remotely familiar.
“So it was a journey of discovery, for me as well as for him.”
Peter had also headed to Harris to stay in a cottage right on one of the world’s most beautiful beaches at Luskentyre late last March, having done much of the research already for Coffin Road, the follow-up to last novel Runaway.
At the start of Peter’s latest book, as the man with the wiped memory struggles to find out who he is, he discovers a map for a track known as Coffin Road and though he doesn’t know where it will lead – and filled with dread and fear – he decides to walk it to find out whether a clue may lie at the end for him.
Peter said: “I had gone prepared so had waterproof leggings and my waterproof parka and big hiking boots and gloves. We rented a cottage right down on the beach on Luskentyre looking out over the beach, and in the Hebrides, the wind never stops blowing, so the weather never stops changing.”
Peter knows the Hebrides well, having spent years on Lewis as co-creator with his wife Janice of Gaelic soap Machair – and producer.
Walking the Coffin Road was the challenging experience for Peter that he writes about for his nameless hero in the book who finds a big clue at the end of his walk – bee hives.
It’s part of the bigger story that has become one of Peter’s passions – a desire to help focus on the problem of bees disappearing under the assault of pesticides in what is beginning to look as if it could be a global “eco-armageddon”.
He says: “The disappearing bees is one of the great modern mysteries of the planet. The bees are dying, why are the bees dying?”
Peter became interested in the work of Joe Cummins, a genetics professor based at the University of Western Ontario in Canada who was the first person to alert the European Union to the possible links between the bees disappearing and pesticides called neo-nicotinoids or neonics.
“Then a scientist working in Scotland, Dr Christopher Connolly, did the scientific research which brought the proof that links one of the neonicitinoids to the destruction of brain cells in bees leading to them losing their memories and then the whole colony collapses. He came up with the smoking gun.”
Peter liked the idea that his hero’s loss of memory was almost a metaphor for what was happening to the bees in the wider world.
But alongside his modern mystery, Peter also weaves the older mystery of Flannan Isle where three lighthousemen disappeared almost a century ago.
“I remember the first time I heard about the story – while we were up there filming, I think – and going ‘Ooh! that might make an interesting story’.
“But it wasn’t until I was working on the story for this that suddenly I found a way of bringing it in.
“I like to bring in some local legend or phenomenon if I’m writing books about the Hebrides, whether it’s the Gugha hunters or the Iolaire.
“And because there is this mystery about what happened to those lighthouse keepers out there, it just seemed like the perfect setting for the discovery of a body.”
Fans of Peter’s Blackhouse and Lewis trilogy will welcome back Detective Sergeant George Gunn, but at the same time as bringing back one of his characters, Peter has also been writing the final chapter in the life of another – the sixth thriller set in France will close the Enzo Files.
Peter works out it is the 18th novel he has written in 18 years – with both Coffin Road and the last Enzo book completed in just eight months.
So he is planning to take a break for a year – from the writing, though the promotional work that takes him all over the world, will continue.
Peter reveals: “The next one will be out in June 2018 – but I’ve just signed a new three-book contract with my publisher Quercus.”
And Coffin Road may not be Peter’s first eco-thriller – he remembers The Firemaker from 1999 – the first of his six China thrillers – looked at the impact of genetically-modified (GM) crops.
He says: “The stuff that is going on, you could write 1000 books on the subject.”
And then he laughs: “Eco-thrillers could be a new Peter May strand ...”Coffin Road (Quercus, £18.99) is out now.