Tag Archives: Peter May

‘Freeze Frame,’ by Peter May

Freeze Frame

This is the last book in the Enzo Mysteries series that is currently available for Kindle.

In Freeze Frame, police forensic expert Enzo Macleod, who lives and operates in France, takes up a cold case involving the murder of an English citizen shot to death 20 years earlier in his home on an island off the Brittany coast.

This book departs from the series’ usual protocols. Enzo is on his own this time, not surrounded by his supportive team of two daughters, their boyfriends, and his female assistant. And this story assumes the form of a classic, “cozy” puzzle mystery. The murder victim had asked, before he died, that his study be preserved exactly as he left it, until his son returned. His son, he said, would immediately understand certain clues he’d left. Unfortunately, the son died before ever seeing the murder scene. His (the son’s) widow has preserved the study untouched ever since. It’s Enzo’s challenge to decipher a puzzle involving secrets and private jokes shared by two men long dead.

I liked Enzo a little more in Freeze Frame than I did in the previous books. He actually exercises some sexual restraint this time out, and a personal challenge that confronts him finds him taking what I consider the right side on a controversial issue.

I’d read the next Enzo book if the Kindle version were available, but for now I’ll be patient. Recommended, with cautions for what you’d expect.

‘Blacklight Blue,’ by Peter May

Blacklight Blue

I kind of cooled to Peter May’s Enzo Macleod mystery series after the last volume I reviewed. But I picked the thread up again with Blacklight Blue. I’m pleased to report that some of the quirks that annoyed me in previous books have been moderated, and I enjoyed the book well enough.

This time out, Enzo has just gotten a diagnosis of terminal cancer from a doctor, when (in short succession) one of his daughters is nearly killed by a bomb, his other daughter’s boyfriend’s business is burned down, and all his credit cards are stopped.

It all seems to relate to the latest in his cold case investigations. A former forensic scientist, Enzo has made it his crusade, based on a bet, to clear up a number of unsolved French murders (though Scottish-Italian, Enzo lives in Paris). His investigation of the murder of a “rent boy” takes him (along with his usual entourage – his daughters, their boyfriends, and his female assistant) to the Auvergne region of France, where he faces a relentless enemy and a deadly confrontation on a mountainside.

I was pleased that the earlier, half-comic theme of Enzo’s devastating attractiveness to every women he meets has been downplayed. This time out he limits himself to a sympathetic female ski instructor who provides his party with a convenient hideout.

My enjoyment of these books is reduced by the fact that I don’t actually find Enzo a very appealing character. Yet I keep reading the books, so it can’t be that bad. Peter May is a good writer.

Recommended. Cautions for the usual stuff.

‘The Critic,’ by Peter May

The Critic

This the second book in the Peter May mystery series starring Enzo MacLeod, who debuted as a character in Extraordinary People, which I reviewed earlier. I don’t think I like this series as much as I like May’s Hebrides novels, but he’s a good storyteller, and there’s plenty to enjoy in The Critic.

The critic of the title is Gil Petty, a prestigious American wine critic who disappeared on a working trip to the vineyards of the Gaillac region in France. His fate was unknown for a couple years, until one day his body appeared staked up like a scarecrow in a vineyard at harvest time. It had clearly been preserved in wine since his death.

Our hero, Enzo MacLeod, makes Gil Petty the next challenge in his missing persons bet. A friend has written a book about unsolved disappearances in France, and Enzo has made a bet with him that he can solve several of them. Enzo is a half-Italian Scotsman, but has lived in France for years, teaching his specialty, forensic science.

Enzo moves into a small cottage near a chalet, and in semi-comic fashion nearly his whole circle of amateur assistants gather around him uninvited – his daughter and her body-builder boyfriend, his young, sexy assistant, and his on-and-off girlfriend. Another drop-in is the estranged, beautiful daughter of the late Mr. Petty, from America.

Enzo is hampered by the suspicion of some of the growers, and by constant sexual tension with almost every female (except his daughter) with whom he comes into contact. Enzo’s attractiveness to women is played mostly for laughs, and it causes him more problems than any satisfaction he gets.

But the mystery is serious, and Gil Petty is not the last victim of a ruthless serial killer.

Like all Peter May mysteries, The Critic is pretty good entertainment. Cautions for language and adult situations. There are some hints of political views, but only in passing.

‘Coffin Road,’ by Peter May

Coffin Road

I’ve become a fan of Peter May’s novels, so I bought Coffin Road, even knowing that the subject matter wouldn’t make me entirely happy. It’s pretty much what I expected. A well-written, thoughtful novel promoting a cause about which I have doubts.

At the beginning of Coffin Road, the main character/narrator (author May has an interesting technique of describing the narrator’s action and thoughts in the present tense, then switching to past tense when jumping to other characters) finds himself washed up on a beach on the island of Harris in the Hebrides. He is soaked through and on the verge of hypothermia. But what troubles him even more is the fact that he can’t remember who he is, or how he got into this situation.

Through a lucky meeting he finds his way back to the cottage where he’s been staying, but he still can find no clue to his identity or what he was doing renting the cottage. This in itself is suspicious and troubling. Gradually he learns that he was involved in some kind of research involving bees. But he can’t find any equipment or records.

Following a clue, he takes a boat to a nearby island, where he finds a murdered body in a lighthouse. Terrified that he is himself the murderer, he flees the scene, but that doesn’t keep him from police suspicion.

The story is well-told, and the tension rises and the stakes get pricier as we go along, just as they ought. The narrator’s meditations on the subject of identity and memory are well thought out and intriguing. My only real problem with the novel is that it’s a message story, promoting the argument that modern pesticides are killing off bee populations, and that human life itself is endangered by the greed of the agribusinesses.

I’ve never been inclined to believe that corporations really think they can earn a profit from global depopulation and environmental devastation. This article from the Washington Post argues that the threat, though not imaginary, has been exaggerated. I don’t know. Maybe the Post writer is in the pay of the big corporations. Or maybe May is in the pay of the environmental lobbies. You’ll think what you like about that issue.

Aside from that, this is Peter May doing what he does so well. His vivid evocations of the storm-lashed Hebrides are, as always, one of the great rewards enjoyed by the reader. Adjusting for political quibbles and my own prejudices, I otherwise recommend Coffin Road. Cautions for adult language and situations.

‘Runaway,’ by Peter May

Runaway

In London in 2015, an old man who has been a fugitive for many years is murdered. In Glasgow, Jack Mackay, a retiree, is summoned by his old friend Maurie, who is dying of cancer. Maurie makes a request, or more of a demand. The murdered man did not do the crime everyone thinks he did. For that reason, Jack must get the old band together, and they must take Maurie to London before he dies. That’s the premise of Runaway, by Peter May.

It’s a crazy request, but Jack is at loose ends in his life and has nothing better to do. Also, he’s curious. Fifty years ago, the friends were in a rock band, and they all ran off on impulse, to find fame and riches in London. What happened was traumatic, and left Jack with many unresolved questions that still haunt him.

Soon the old men are on the road, in a “borrowed” car, with Jack’s couch potato grandson dragooned into driving. As they follow the route they traveled half a century earlier, the reader follows Jack’s recollections of the original journey, the central event and great tragedy of all their lives.

I was uncomfortable with this book at first. I feared it would be yet another celebration of the glories of the Love Generation, with its supposed idealism and courage. But what the band encounters in this story is much closer to the actual truth – passions running riot, drugged confusion, and cynical predation by exploiters. Jack is victimized, and victimizes others himself, to his eternal regret.

It’s a sad story, but insightful, and – in the view of this survivor of the era – pretty authentic. I also ought to mention that on one particular social issue – I won’t spoil it for you – it takes exactly the right side.

This wasn’t an easy novel for me to read, but in the end I found it rewarding and enriching. Cautions for language, sexual situations, and disturbing content.

‘Entry Island,’ by Peter May

Entry Island

A warm sun slanted out of the autumn sky, transforming every tree into one of nature’s stained-glass windows. The golds and yellows, oranges and reds of the fall leaves glowed vibrant and luminous, backlit by the angled rays of the sun, turning the forest into a cathedral of color. Sime had forgotten just how stunning these autumn colors could be, his senses dulled by years of gray city living.

Another novel by Peter May. Another home run, in my opinion. This guy can write.

As Entry Island begins, a man has been stabbed to death on Entry Island, in the Madeline Islands on the Gulf of St. Lawrence in Canada. Detective Sime Mackenzie is sent to act as translator for the investigators. The province is francophone Quebec, but the people on Entry Island still speak English, which is also Sime’s (short for Simon’s) childhood tongue. He’s not eager to go – he’s exhausted, debilitated by chronic insomnia. And he doesn’t get along well with the other officers – especially the one he used to be married to.

The murder victim was the richest man on the island, and suspicion centers on his wife, who says she was attacked by a knife-wielding man, and her husband died defending her. But the moment Sime meets Kersty Cowell, he has an irrational sense that he’s seen her before. Then she remarks on the signet ring he wears, an heirloom from his father. She has a pendant that matches it exactly, she says – though she can’t find it when she looks for it.

As he pursues the investigation, Sime is tormented by brief, vivid dreams during his short periods of sleep. In these dreams he relives the experiences of an ancestor who bore his name, who was a victim of the 19th Century land clearances in the Scottish Isles (his grandmother read to him from the man’s journals). He loved, tragically, a woman also called Kersty. History, dreams, and police work come together in a drama that might save Sime, or drive him mad – or kill him.

Once again, Peter May presents a fairly far-fetched plot, but closes the deal with style. His characters are good, his dialogue vivid, and his descriptions cinematic. As a Christian, I had trouble with suggestions of some kind of reincarnation, but the faith of the Christian characters is presented with sympathy and no axes are ground.

Cautions for the sort of things you’d expect. Sometimes heartbreaking, sometimes transcendent, Entry Island is a superior reading experience for mystery fans.

‘Extraordinary People,’ by Peter May

Extraordinary People

I’m becoming a fan of Scottish writer Peter May. Extraordinary People, which seems to be the first book of a new series, only added to my enthusiasm.

Enzo MacLeod (half Italian, half Scottish) is the father of two daughters. One, whose mother died, adores him and lives in France. The other, whose mother he divorced, will not speak to him. However, she too lives in France.

Enzo used to be a forensic scientist for the police, but now he teaches biology at the University of Toulouse. As a sort of a lark, he makes a bet with a friend, a journalist who’s writing a book on unsolved disappearances. Enzo bets him that he can solve the disappearance of a famous professor, public intellectual, and film critic about ten years before.

Quickly he is able to identify a skull discovered in a metal case in the catacombs of Paris as that of the missing man. Along with the skull various items were found, and Enzo believes they are clues to the motive and murderer. He begins to run the clues down, using the resources of the internet, which did not exist when the man was murdered. Along the way he gradually learns that someone is following his investigation, someone willing to kill him and those he cares about to keep old secrets.

The form of this mystery is one I don’t generally buy into – the serial puzzle mystery, where the detective has to solve a series of obscure riddles to solve the crime. Such things happen in real life, I think, never. In outline, this story resembles the National Treasure movies, which I found contrived and unconvincing.

But May plays the game at a much higher level, and while I recognized the implausibility of the plot, I still had a good time following it. Enzo is an ambivalent character who can sometimes repel the reader, but his growth in maturity and self-knowledge is part of the story.

Cautions for the usual stuff, plus a couple naive comments in the Dan Brown line. But overall I enjoyed Extraordinary People very much.

‘The Chessmen,’ by Peter May

The storm had passed by the Monday, but it was still overcast, dull light suffused with a grey-green, as if we were all somehow trapped inside a Tupperware box.

I’ve reviewed the first two books of Peter May’s Lewis Trilogy below. The Chessmen is the third (the title refers to the famous “Lewis chessmen,” a remarkable set of Norwegian chess pieces discovered on the Scottish island of Lewis, the site of these books, centuries ago. They represent a 12th Century king and his court and warriors).

This time around Fin Macleod, our hero, is still living on Lewis, where he grew up, having left the Edinburgh police force. He takes a job as a security officer on a large estate, to solve the problem of poachers taking wild salmon. This leads him to a hike in the mountains with “Whistler,” an old friend. They discover a rare phenomenon – one of the mountain lochs has spontaneously drained, and they observe a small private airplane lying on the newly uncovered bottom. They both know immediately who must be inside – their old friend Roddy, who was involved with them in a rock and roll group in their college years and disappeared in this very plane.

As with the other books in the series, the story takes us into the past, to old relationships and old secrets. An interesting subplot involves Fin’s old friend/enemy Donald, now the pastor of the local Free Church, who has to defend himself in a church hearing, accused of the trespass of killing a man to save lives. The ending is a shocker.

Very good, especially the high quality of the prose. Cautions for language, and hard (but not entirely dismissive) statements on religion. Recommended.

‘The Lewis Man,’ by Peter May

Beyond the curve of the hill, Fin could see the dark roof of Crobost Church dominating both the skyline and the people over whose lives its shadow fell. Someone had hung out washing at the manse, and white sheets flapped furiously in the wind like demented semaphore flags urging praise and fear of God in equal measures.

Fin loathed the church and all it stood for. But there was comfort in its familiarity. This, after all, was home. And he felt his spirits lifted.

I gave the first volume of Peter May’s Lewis trilogy, The Blackhouse, a mixed review the other day (see below). I thought the writing superior, but the main character inadequate. Fin Macleod, the hero, seemed to me a little passive and emo (too much like me, frankly) to be a mystery detective. But the setting in the Outer Hebrides was fascinating and seductive, and I bought the second book, The Lewis Man. I’m glad I did. I consider this one considerably better, and the first wasn’t all that bad.

Fin Macleod is back in his childhood home at the northern tip of the island of Lewis. His career as an Edinburgh detective is over, as is his marriage. He’s at loose ends, still mourning the death of his young son, but now he has living connections on Lewis, including Marsaili, the woman he was in love with as a boy.

Though he lacks an official police position, Fin is asked by his friend George Gunn, local cop, to come and assist when a body is found buried in a peat bog. At first they think it’s one of those famous prehistoric bog burials, sacrificial victims perfectly preserved in the acidic peat, that show up in northern Europe from time to time. But this victim has an Elvis Presley tattoo on one arm, which makes the death a modern murder.

The investigation uncovers a tangle of old secrets involving the treatment of orphans and organized crime. And it soon becomes clear that Marsaili’s father, now sinking into dementia, is not the person he claims to be. DNA evidence shows him to be a close relative of the murder victim. Is the gentle old man a killer?

I liked Fin Macleod much better this time around – he acted more like a detective, even off the payroll. And the writing was once again exceptional – especially the descriptions of Hebrides scenery and weather. The ending was perhaps a tad contrived, but it was also satisfying and emotionally touching.

Recommended. Cautions, mostly, for language.

‘The Blackhouse,’ by Peter May

The northern part of Lewis was flat and unbroken by hills or mountains, and the weather swept across it from the Atlantic to the Minch, always in a hurry. And so it was always changing. Light and dark in ever-shifting patterns, one set against the other – rain, sunshine, black sky, blue-sky. And rainbows. My childhood seemed filled by them. Usually doublers.

I was encouraged to check out Peter May’s “Lewis Trilogy” of Scottish police novels. I have now read The Blackhouse, the first of them. My reaction is positive, but mixed. The writing (witness the passage above) is superior. My main problem with the book was with the main character and sometime narrator (he narrates the out-of-sequence flashbacks which constitute about half of the book), Fin McLeod, Edinburgh police detective. One likes to like the hero of a book, but sometimes Fin is hard to like. However, there’s a reason for that, entirely in line with the purposes of the story.

Fin is a native of the island of Lewis, in the Hebrides, a bleak place where life is tough to sustain and economic times are hard. He got away and became a policeman in Edinburgh, and has been back only once since. But when a man is murdered in his old home town, in a way almost identical to a murder he’s investigating in Edinburgh, he’s assigned to go and see if there’s a connection.

Back at home, he encounters many old friends and enemies, most of them greatly changed physically but much the same at heart. The course of his investigation rouses memories, which constitute the many long flashbacks in the narrative. Gradually he finds that the similarities between the two murders are no accident, and that he will have to confront the deepest and blackest secrets of his past.

As I mentioned, I found it hard to root for Fin sometimes. He often seems cold and unsympathetic to others. But it’s not surprising that he keeps people at a distance, considering the amount of loss he suffered growing up, as we learn. He seems to have been touched by more than his share of tragedy, even in a place where life is a marginal proposition for most.

For the Christian reader, there are interesting implications. Fin describes himself as not a believer, but not an atheist either – he’s just mad at God. Christians – and there are many on Lewis – seem to be uniformly pinched and joyless. On the other hand, one of the most important positive characters in the book reads the Bible constantly and draws wisdom from it. So I think there’s more going on here than mere flippant modern secularism.

The Blackhouse is a beautiful book, but challenging. I’m not sure whether I recommend it or not, but I’ve bought the sequel. Cautions for sex and language and graphic descriptions of murdered bodies.