Behind The Book: ENTRY ISLAND

The Lewis Trilogy had seen me returning to my Scottish roots after writing a series of thrillers set in China, and the Enzo Files investigations set in my adopted home of France.

The trilogy set in the Outer Hebrides had been hugely successful, winning awards and becoming a best-seller in several countries, but this success made it all the more daunting when I set about deciding what to write next.

Scotland was still on my mind, specifically something that I had long wanted to write about, “The Highland Clearances”.  I was particularly motivated to write about this shameful piece of British history because it mysteriously manages never to make it on to the syllabus of any schools in Scotland or England.

I was in my twenties when I saw John McGrath’s wonderful theatre piece called “The Cheviot, The Stag, and the Black Black Oil”, and discovered for the first time the brutal facts about what was effectively 100 years of ethnic cleansing – something that had been conveniently swept under the carpet by those who decide what we should and shouldn’t know about the history of our own country.

As McGrath had done, I wanted to bring the story out into the open, and deliver it to a wider audience. The only problem? I didn’t want to write a historical fiction.  I write contemporary crime fiction and any story involving the clearances would have to be firmly rooted in a present day setting.

The Clearances took place in Scotland during the 18th and 19th centuries.  Landowners had decided that rearing sheep would be more profitable than having tenants, and so began evicting people from the homes that their families had lived in for generations. Villages were burned and thousands of people were herded on to ships to travel to the “New World” often with no more than the clothes they stood up in.

In order to find my present day story, I began to look at the journeys they took and the places that their descendants would now inhabit.

Crammed into the holds of disease-ridden ships, many of them arrived in North America via the St Lawrence river.  They landed first on Grosse Île where they would be processed and quarantined or hospitalized before the survivors made the journey on to Québec City.

From there, these desperate souls were dependent upon handouts and a network of aid from those that had arrived before them.  Many Scots from the Hebrides made their way to the Eastern Townships of Québec where fellow countrymen had formed settlements and carved out new lives from the virgin forests, naming towns after the island villages they had left so far behind.

Visiting and walking through the graveyards and forests in the Eastern Townships I was touched and filled with admiration for the fortitude, community spirit and values that created the foundations of the society that they forged.

I learned quickly, though, that those people who had arrived speaking Gaelic, and who quickly had to learn English, were the antecedents of later generations who would now be speaking French.  When I went to do research at the Sûreté de Quebec in Montréal I met police officers with names like MacInnes, and Mackenzie, who didn’t speak any English, and whose only connection with their forefathers was the Scottish name that they carried.

So ideas began to come for my central character, Sime Mackenzie.  He is a homicide detective with the Montréal police.  His family were of Hebridean descent, and he grew up in an English-speaking household in the Eastern Townships at a time when only French was spoken at school.  Fluently bilingual, he is chosen to travel with the French-speaking investigation team to Entry Island when a brutal murder is committed there.

Entry Island is part of the Magdalen Islands, situated in the middle of the Gulf of St. Lawrence and totally isolated from the North American mainland.

The Magdalen Islands had come to mind as a setting for the crime as a result of my friend and neighbor in France.  He is a “Madelinot” – born and brought up in the Magdalen Islands before leaving home with a music band as a young man, to travel the world.  He had married and settled in France, but like so many islanders the pull of the island roots remains strong.  He had inspired me with tales of his homeland, and from photographs I could see instant connections with the Hebrides.

The islands are part of French-speaking Québec, except for one tiny island which is resolutely English-speaking.  The small population of Entry Island is mainly Scots and Irish in origin, descended from emigrants who were shipwrecked on their way to Québec City in the 18th and 19th centuries.

When I visited the islands for my research, I had an immediate network of local guides – friends and family of my neighbor – at my disposal and ready to help to point me in the right direction to get under the skin of the place.

So, I had my connections.  I only had to bring them together.  It was a risk, telling a crime story where part of it takes place in the Hebrides off the west coast of Scotland in the middle of the 19th century, and part takes place in the Magdalen Islands, off the East coast of Canada in the 21st century.

I think it’s a risk that paid off.  Entry Island won the Deanston Scottish Crime Book of the Year and the UK’s Dagger Award for the ITV Bookclub Best Read of the Year. It was also shortlisted for the UK Theakston’s Crime Novel of the Year.

Peter May author photoEntry Island might take you to places and times that you wouldn’t normally associate with a crime or mystery novel, but it’s a genre that’s strong enough to accommodate the odd anomaly, I think!

Peter May was born and raised in Scotland. He was an award-winning journalist at the age of twenty-one and a published novelist at twenty-six. When his first book was adapted as a major drama series for the BCC, he quit journalism and during the high-octane fifteen years that followed, became one of Scotland’s most successful television dramatists. He created three prime-time drama series, presided over two of the highest-rated serials in his homeland as script editor and producer, and worked on more than 1,000 episodes of ratings-topping drama before deciding to leave television to return to his first love, writing novels. He has won several literature awards in France, received the USA’s Barry Award for The Blackhouse, the first in his internationally bestselling Lewis Trilogy; and in 2014 was awarded the ITV Specsavers Crime Thriller Book Club Best Read of the Year award for Entry Island. Peter now lives in South-West France with his wife, writer Janice Hally. Peter is on Facebook and Twitter.