With its intriguing central character and a compelling, atmospheric setting, the Lewis trilogy (The Blackhouse, The Lewis Man, The Chessmen) by Peter May was a great success, and the author returns to the island in this latest novel.
Once again we start with a character far from their Hebridean home – although Niamh Macfarlane, the focus of I’ll Keep You Safe, is very different to Fin Macleod of the earlier trilogy. Where Fin was a cop bringing city thinking to the island in an inevitable culture clash, Niamh is co-owner of textile firm Ranish Tweed, taking ancient weaving skills from Lewis to the alien world of high fashion – and perhaps losing herself in the process.
We begin in Paris with an accusation of betrayal – and, minutes later, a car bomb that destroys both Niamh’s husband, Ruairidh, and his supposed lover, and also the shape of Niamh’s world, as she is questioned by the French police who seem sure she is the perpetrator.
Slipping back to the beginning of Niamh and Ruairidh’s story, we learn both how the Ranish Tweed company came about and the rocks along the road of the couple’s relationship.
Secrets and intrigues are hinted at as the narrative switches between the current police investigation and the couple’s past.
About two-thirds of the way through, after Niamh returns to Lewis with Ruairidh’s remains, French cop Sylvie Braque arrives to follow up the investigation.
Some readers may guess the identity of the murderer, but there is still a final twist in the last few pages – although it stretches the thread of belief in the story to breaking point and undermines much of what has gone before.
Apart from the ending, there are other problems with this novel. Sylvie’s chaotic home life is presumably supposed to be a change from the stereotype of feminine domesticity, but feels like it has been imported wholesale from a male character written a decade ago. Also, too many of the characters are one-dimensional – fashion designer Lee, for example, is a blunt, unkind caricature – and the murderer’s motivation is hackneyed, with no subtlety to leaven the use of an old idea.
Though well researched and full of evocative, moving writing about Lewis and about grief, I’ll Keep You Safe left me wanting more – or possibly less, as I would happily have done without the ending.
I’ll Keep You Safe, by Peter May, Quercus, £18.99