Review: Coffin Road by Peter May

WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD
Ever since I read May’s Lewis Trilogy I have looked out for more of his books, hoping to find more gritty, absorbing mystery thrillers. But I always seem to end up a little disappointed; they’re good books all right but just not up to the standard I was expecting. Entry Island invoked the supernatural way too much for my liking; Runaway would have been much better split into a memoir and a novel.
‘Coffin Road’ looks like being yet another disappointment – I’m only about a third of the way through it and already I don’t think I’ll bother to read any further. It’s starts off very promisingly:

The first thing I am aware of is the taste of salt. It fills my mouth. Invasive. Pervasive. It dominates my being, smothering all other senses. Until the cold takes me. Sweeps me up and cradles me in its arms. Holding me so tightly I can’t seem to move. Except for the shivering. A raging, uncontrollable shivering. And somewhere in my mind I know this is a good thing. My body trying to generate heat. If I wasn’t shivering I would be dead.

A man comes to washed up on a wide, empty sandy beach with no idea of where he is, what has happened to him, or who he is. He cannot remember even his name. He meets an old lady who evidently knows him and helps him to his house – conveniently for him, it’s just a short way up the road. Inside the house, he finds almost nothing to help him remember who he is. His wallet is almost empty; there’s some cash, but no driving license (although he has a car) or bank cards. There’s a utility bill on the table, so he knows his name is Neal Maclean and that this house is in a hamlet called Luskentyre, on the west coast of Harris in the Hebrides. Like all of May’s locations, it’s a real place – you can see it for yourself on Google Street view – and its every bit as astonishingly scenic as he describes. May’s descriptive writing is terrific – the Scottish tourist board must throw a party to celebrate every time he brings out a book set in Scotland – and this doesn’t disappoint on that score. If you don’t want to immediately travel to the Western Isles to experience the georgeous landscapes for yourself, then you have no soul.
What does disappoint me is his sloppy plotting. He’s managed to construct a pretty good and intriguing storyline – Maclean can’t throw off a feeling that he’s committed some terrible crime, he sees somebody keeping watch on him, somebody tries to kill him, he finds he’s made considerable efforts to hide his past and that he’s having an affair with a married neighbour; there’s a laptop with an internet connection, but it’s been cleaned of everything that might help him find his identity. All very intriguing.
But May’s irritatingly careless over details. For example, take the aforementioned utility bill. That’s what May actually calls it, a “utility bill”, not an electricity bill or an oil bill or telephone bill. When did you ever hear somebody IRL talk about having a “utility bill”?
Then there’s the old lady who comes to his aid at the beginning of the book; he’s just staggered up off the beach, wet, disoriented and with an obvious head injury – yet she never asks him what happened, or even offers to call a doctor. And though she lives nearby, knows his name and where he lives, and regularly walks her dog past his house, she doesn’t ever call on him to find out if he’s OK; her usefulness over, we never hear from her again.
Thete are other irritations as well. May tends to dump huge gobbets of information into the text; a visit to a nearby cathedral turns MacLean into a tour guide, telling the reader all about the building’s history and architecture for about a page and a half; the unexpected find of a beehive prompts a long speech that reads like the Wikipedia entry on bees and beekeeping. And so on. It all feels like attempts to pad out the wordcount.
And then thete’s the time he finds a folder of newspaper cuttings that finally give him some clues to who he really is. He finally has a name, an address in Edinburgh, and a few biographical details. So he rushes to his laptop and…. googles himself to find more? No, actually. He goes to BT’s online telephone directory and checks that he’s listed at that address. Then he looks up maps and timetables. And that’s all the checking he does before excitedly setting off for Edinburgh.
Earlier in the story, we’re told that he has no trouble operating the laptop and that it all feels so comfortable and natural that he is sure he was an expert IT user in his previous life. Mays also writes him (very well) as constantly feeling angry and despairing that he can’t remember who he really is.
Yet, with a fully functioning laptop with an internet connection in the house, at no time does he ever attempt to look for clues on the internet! Obviously his name is common enough to generate thousands of hits, but he has no shortage of time to look through them. He does use the internet for looking things up – timetables, local history and so on, but it never occurs to him to search on his name. His married girlfriend, who is almost certainly not what she seems, also never suggests this. Finally, he never thinks that there might be something odd about being still currently listed as renting a telephone line at an address he left two years ago (there again, he’s never wondered how his car’s tax, insurance and MOT have been kept updated here for the last two years). Either this is another example of bad plotting or it’s an authorial signal that something sinister, perhaps connected to his memory loss, is going on.
I carried on a little further but it soon became obvious where the plot was heading, and reading the spoilers in the Amazon reviews confirmed my fears that it was turning into an anti-GMO polemic. I already read enough of those on Facebook and I spend far too much time refuting and correcting them (no, Monsanto doesn’t sell ‘terminator seeds’, GMO food won’t give you cancer, Roundup doesn’t kill bees…. etc bloody etc). I don’t want to read the same badly-informed propaganda when I’m relaxing with a thriller. So I’m not bothering to read any further.

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