Newsletter - Peter May by Jack

Tuesday Aug 05 2014
by Jack

The Outer Hebridean Isle of Lewis and Isle of Harris, although referred to independently, are actually part of one long narrow island, separated almost totally by a rugged range of mountains.  The island exists in another world, both culturally and physically.  It is less like the remainder of Scotland than, say, Sweden or Denmark.  Culturally, the population of Harris and Lewis are some of the few Gaelic speakers remaining in Scotland, and are mainly adherents of a joyless brand of Presbyterian Calvinism known as the Free Church (or “We Frees”)  Economically, the islands of the Outer Hebrides once supported a substantial extractive industry based on the collection of seaweed (or kelp) from its shores, which was used to manufacture soap and medicinal iodine, but that industry died out in the nineteenth century, leading to the emigration of thousands of inhabitants to North America, mainly to Canada.  So many came to Atlantic Canada that Gaelic was once the third most common language spoken in the country.  Lewis has a well-known connection with Manitoba – the first expedition to Lord Selkirk’s settlement in Red River was organized in the Isle’s chief port of Stornoway.  Harris, of course, was once famous for its tweed, hand-woven from the wool of island sheep.  Today the island is an economic backwater of declining crofts (subsistence farms), sheilings (shepherd’s huts), part-time fishing, and occasional eco-tourism, accessible only via air or a lengthy and expensive ferry ride from the mainland.

In 1993 Lewis became the setting for one of the most fascinating television soap operas ever produced.  Nearly 100 episodes of Machair appeared on Scottish TV between 1993 and 1998.  Shot on Lewis, the series was filmed in Gaelic and shown on national television with English subtitles.  Skeptics insisted the public would not accept it, since the unusual form of presentation was chiefly to take advantage of government subsidies for Gaelic-language television, but it surprisingly enough achieved a substantial audience and much critical success (much as would the later Swedish production of the Stieg Larsson “Millennial” books.)  One of the reasons for the success was the contribution of the chief script writer, Peter May.   Born in Glasgow in 1951, May had a considerable track record of success writing crime fiction books and crime fiction television.  He had been in large measure responsible for the scripts for three major television series shown in Britain in the 1970s and 1980s: “The Standard” (1978), “The Squadron” (1982), and “Take the High Road” (1980-ca. 1992). 

Following his years with Machair, May subsequently  moved to writing successful  crime fiction, where again he became associated with several important series: six novels set in Beijing, published between 1999 and 2004, and five novels set in France (the “Enzo” series), published 2006 and 2007.  In both cases May did extensive research, and readers appreciated the books for their authenticity as well as for their characterizations and plots.  A few years ago, while residing in France, May decided to return to the Isle of Lewis, where he had lived for five years in the 1990s, as a setting for a trilogy of novels.  His efforts initially were not very successful.  A number of British publishers rejected the manuscripts, probably because of the combination of an unusual setting, the deliberate mixing of crime fiction and soap-opera backstory, and the use of a somewhat disconcerting set of alternating narrative voices.  May employed a third-person narrative for his crime story, but cut to first-person reminiscences for much of his backstory.    In any case, the first of the Lewis novels, The Black House, was not initially published -- in French -- until late 2009.  It became an instant European bestseller, although I must emphasize that most European best-sellers do very badly in North America and in our shop.  In any case, a British publisher finally brought out the first of the three volumes in 2011.  Once published in Britain, it made the best-seller lists in the UK.  Two of the three volumes (The Black House, The Lewis Man) are finally available in Canada. We have The Black House in stock in hardcover and the title will be available in trade paper ($15.99) in August 2014. The hardcover version of The Lewis Man will be released in early September. Although why the third volume (The Chess Game), which has been available in Britain since 2013, will not appear until later, is a matter known only to God and the publishers.

For those among our customers who revel in exotic settings – and Lewis is at least as strange  to us as Thailand or the Ukraine -- and soap-opera backstories – think Gail Bowen or Louise Penny – should really appreciate Peter May’s new trilogy.

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