The theme I had chosen as the focal point for Entry Island was the Highland Clearances, but because I didn’t want to write a historical novel, that presented me with a problem. The fact that I was a crime writer of contemporary fiction compounded that.
In the Lewis Trilogy, I had told each story in two timelines – one set in the present, the other in the past, and I decided that this was the way to proceed with Entry Island. The problem was that where the time gap between past and present in the trilogy books was a decade or two, the new book was going to present me with a time gap of at least 150 years.
The other problem I faced was one of location. My familiarity with the Outer Hebrides led me, quite naturally, to set the historical element of the story on the islands, where there had been some pretty brutal clearances – in Barra, West Harris, and the North Uist village of Solas. However, the logical setting for the contemporary end of the story was Canada, where so many Highlanders ended up after being forced from their homes in Scotland. But I had never been to Canada, and since I never write about a place I haven’t been to, it meant a lengthy research trip to make myself familiar with the locations that would appear in the book.
These turned out to be the Eastern Townships of mainland Quebec – settlements established largely by Hebridean Scots – and the Magdalen Islands in the middle of the Gulf of St Lawrence. This remote archipelago is remarkably similar to the Hebrides, except that most of the population are French speakers. With one exception. The tiny Entry Island, where people speak only English and are mostly of Scots descent.
My central character became Sime Mackenzie, a Montreal homicide detective who arrives there to investigate a brutal murder – only to discover that the wife of the victim, and prime suspect in his killing, is unaccountably familiar to him, even although they have never met. And so began the bridging of the gap
It is evident from the way the stones are set into the slope of the hill that industrious hands once toiled to make this pathway. It is overgrown now, the shallow impression of a ditch on one side. He makes his way carefully down towards the remains of the village, pursued by the oddest sense of treading in his own footsteps. And yet he has never been here.
The silhouette of a broken-down drystone wall runs along the contour of the treeless hill above him. Beyond it, he knows, a crescent of silver sand curls away towards the cemetery and the standing stones on the rise. Below him, the footings of blackhouses are barely visible among the peaty soil and the spikes of tall grasses that bend and bow in the wind. The last evidence of walls that once sheltered the families who lived and died here.
He follows the path between them, down towards the shingle shore where a ragged line of roughly hewn stones vanishes into waves that cast their spume upon the pebbles, frothing and spitting. They are all that remain of some long forgotten attempt to build a jetty.
There were, perhaps, ten or twelve blackhouses here once. Thatched roofs curved over thick stone walls, leaking peat smoke through cracks and crevices to be whipped away on the icy edge of winter gales. In the heart of the village, he stops and pictures the spot where old Calum lay bleeding, his skull split open, all of his years and heroism erased by a single blow. He crouches down to touch the earth, and in doing so feels a direct connection with history, communing with ghosts, a ghost himself haunting his own past. And yet not his past.
He closes his eyes and imagines how it was, how it felt, knowing that this is where it all began, in another age, in someone else’s life.
The front door of the summerhouse opened straight into the living room through a fly-screen door off the porch. It was a large room occupying most of the downstairs footprint of a house that the murdered man used for guests who never came.
A narrow corridor at the bottom of the staircase ran off to a bathroom and a small bedroom at the back of the property. There was an open fireplace with a stone surround. The furniture was dark and heavy, and took up most of the floor space. Sime thought that although the house itself had been remodelled, this must still be the original furniture. It felt like stepping back in time. Generous old armchairs with antimacassars, worn rugs strewn across uneven but freshly varnished floorboards. Heavy-framed oil paintings on the walls, and every available space cluttered with ornaments and framed family photos. It even smelled old in here, and made him think of his grandmother’s house in Scotstown.
Blanc fed cable off into the back bedroom where he would set up his monitors, and Sime lined up two cameras on tripods to focus on the armchair facing the window, where the newly widowed woman would be well lit. He set his own chair with its back to the window so that his face would be obscured to her, but every micro sign to flit across her face would be evident to him.
He heard floorboards creaking overhead and turned towards the staircase as a policewoman came down into the light. She looked bewildered. ‘What’s going on?’
Sime told her they were setting up for the interview. ‘I understand she’s upstairs,’ he said. The officer nodded. ‘Send her down, then.’
He stood by the window for a moment, holding the net curtain aside, and remembered the words of the sergeant enquêteur who had met them at the island’ s only harbour.
Looks like it was her that did it. Sunlight caught his face so that it was reflected in the glass, and he saw his familiar lean features beneath their tumble of thick blonde curls. He saw the fatigue in his eyes, and the shadows that hollowed his cheeks, and he immediately jumped focus to gaze out across the ocean. The longer grass along the cliff’s edge was dipping and diving in the wind now, white-tops blowing across the gulf from the south-west, and in the distance he saw an ominous bank of dark cloud bubbling up on the horizon.
The creak of the stairs brought his head around, and for a moment that seemed like an eternity his world stopped.
She stood on the bottom step, her dark hair drawn back from the delicate structure of her face. Pale skin stained by dried blood. Her bloodied nightdress was partially covered by a blanket draped around her shoulders. He could see that she was tall and holding herself erect as if it were a matter of pride not to be cowed by her circumstance.
Her eyes were a dark, crystal-cut blue with darker rings around the pupils. Sad eyes filled with tragedy. He could see the shadows of sleeplessness smudged beneath them as if someone had drawn charcoal-stained thumbs across the skin.
He heard the slow tick, tick of an old pendulum clock on the mantel, and saw motes of dust suspended in the light that slanted through the windows. He saw her lips move, but there was no sound. They moved again in silence, forming words he couldn’t hear, until he became aware suddenly of the irritation in her voice. ‘Hello? Is there anyone home?’
And it was as if someone had released the pause button and his world wound back up to speed. But the confusion remained.
He said, ‘I’m sorry. You are... ?’
He saw her consternation now. ‘Kirsty Cowell. They said you wanted to interview me.’
And out of his turmoil he heard himself saying, ‘I know you.’
She frowned. ‘I don’t think so.’
But he knew he did. Not where, or how, or when. But with an absolute certainty. And that feeling he had experienced on the plane returned to almost overwhelm him.
• Peter May is the award-winning author of the internationally best-selling Lewis Trilogy set in the Outer Hebrides of Scotland, as well as the China Thrillers, featuring Beijing detective Li Yan and American forensic pathologist Margaret Campbell. He also writes the Enzo Files, featuring Scottish forensic scientist Enzo MacLeod, which is set in France. In addition he is the author of several standalone books, the latest of which is Entry Island. He has also had a successful career in TV, with more than 1,000 credits in 15 years as scriptwriter and script editor on prime-time British television drama. Born and raised in Scotland, he lives in France.
• Entry Island by Peter May (Quercus £16.99) is out now. For details of readings and signings in Scotland, Link to website