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I attended the strangest of award ceremonies last week.
From the isolation of my study in my home in France, I was part of a Zoom conference for the UK Crime Writers’ Association’s Dagger Awards. Several hundred people from around the world were in attendance, but instead of gathering with the great and good of crime writing in tuxedo and black tie at one of London’s classiest venues, I was in my shorts, at my desk, accompanied by my wife Janice and my dog Daftie!
I had been shortlisted for the Dagger in the Library. This award recognises the popularity of an author’s body of work with readers and users of libraries. The judges committee is made up of librarians from across the country.
When master of ceremonies Barry Forshaw announced the winner, he quoted Sue Wilkinson, the chair of the 2021 committee who said: ‘Peter May infuses his books with a real sense of place, whether it be China, France or the Hebrides. His books are tense, atmospheric and complex but always utterly absorbing.’
This is a very special prize to win as it is for all my various books and series, and an endorsement from the readers, users and keepers of the UK library system.
I know how important libraries were to me from the very earliest of ages. Long may they continue to provide a free and essential service to readers young and old.
And in other news…
The Night Gate will be available in paperback from August 2021. In case you missed the story behind the writing of the book, here’s a video I made explaining it…
In a sleepy French village, the body of a man shot through the head is disinterred by the roots of a fallen tree.
A week later a famous art critic is viciously murdered in a nearby house.
The deaths occurred more than seventy years apart.
Asked by a colleague to inspect the site of the former, forensics expert Enzo Macleod quickly finds himself embroiled in the investigation of the latter. Two extraordinary narratives are set in train – one historical, unfolding in the treacherous wartime years of Occupied France; the other contemporary, set in the autumn of 2020 as France re-enters Covid lockdown.
And Enzo’s investigations reveal an unexpected link between the murders – the Mona Lisa.
The Night Gate Online Tour
Join me at any of these events from anywhere in the world and hear me speak about the story behind “The Night Gate” and the return of Enzo…
Wee Three Indies 7.00 – 8.30pm
To book tickets contact Edinburgh Bookshop:
Suffolk Libraries Day Book Festival, 7.00pm
To book tickets see the website: https://www.suffolklibraries.co.uk/whats-on/live-author-event-with-peter-may
Jarrold Bookshop, 6.30pm
To book tickets see the Jarrold’s website: https://www.jarrold.co.uk/events-diary/events-list/an-evening-with-peter-may
Sheffield Library 6.30 – 7.30pm
To book tickets contact Sheffield Library: https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/the-night-gate-in-conversation-with-peter-may-tickets-136959562739
At Home with 4 Indies 7.00 – 8.00pm
To book tickets: https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/137779665689
Griffin Books, 8.00pm
To book tickets: www.ticketsource.co.uk/griffinbooks
Toppings, Edinburgh, 7.00pm
To book tickets: https://www.toppingbooks.co.uk/events/st-andrews/peter-may/
After a successful career creating and writing top-rated drama for British television, and with 8 novels published in the UK and USA, I hit a period around fifteen years ago when I could not find a publisher for anything I wrote. Books that were universally turned down included “The Blackhouse” (which has since gone on to win awards internationally and sell millions of copies worldwide) and “Extraordinary People” (which was the first book in what later became the hugely successful Enzo Macleod series).
Another book I wrote around this time was set in a London which was at the epicentre of a global pandemic. It was a city in total lockdown. A virus was claiming thousands of lives. Hospital and emergency services were in meltdown. The prime minister was dead and soldiers were on the streets to enforce a curfew.
The literary establishment was highly sceptical. It was OTT, unrealistic. A lockdown in London could never happen in modern-day Britain.
No one would publish it.
So I despatched the manuscript to a metaphorical drawer – a file in my Dropbox which has spent the last fifteen years gathering dust in the ether.
Fast forward to the year 2020, and London is a city in lockdown. Emergency services are buckling under the strain of skyrocketing infections. The death toll is mounting. The Prime Minister has caught the virus. And it’s only going to get worse, the scientists are telling us.
FORETELLING THE FUTURE
Strangely, many of the things I have written about during a long career in TV and books have subsequently come to pass. In my early years, while storylining the Scottish soap opera “Take The High Road”, there was a sequence of spooky occurrences. I wrote about a character falling and breaking his arm. Three weeks later that actor fell from a ladder and broke his arm. In another story I wrote about a character becoming pregnant. The actress became pregnant. There was a lot of nervous laughter about it among the cast. Actors hoped I wasn’t going to kill off their character – and not just because of loss of earnings. I had an actor come to my door once and ask if I could write a story in which his character won the lottery.
When it came to books, I seemed to be almost prescient. In the first of my China Thrillers, “The Firemaker”, I wrote about the introduction of a genetically modified strain of rice which goes wrong. Within a couple of years of publication the genetically modified “Golden Rice” appeared on the scene to be met with huge opposition from environmental and anti-globalisation activists. It has taken nearly twenty years for its successor to get tentative approval for commercial cultivation.
My 1981 book, “The Man With No Face”, was set against Britain’s uncertainty about its future place in Europe. Ten years later my book, “The Noble Path”, followed refugees fleeing from war, taking to flimsy boats to cross treacherous bodies of water. Sound familiar?
In “Snakehead”, another of the China Thrillers, I wrote about a truckload of dead Chinese found abandoned in Texas. They were illegal immigrants who had suffocated in the back of the trailer. That might sound familiar, too.
Also in “Snakehead” I wrote about bio-terrorists re-kindling the Spanish Flu virus of 1918 to weaponise it against America, and the research for that book provided useful background when it came to writing “Lockdown”, in which the virus that causes the havoc is a variation of avian, or bird, flu.
REAL LIFE PANDEMIC PLANNING
At the time scientists were predicting that bird flu would be the next major pandemic. And had it come to pass, the consequences would have been catastrophic. The H5N1 virus is, perhaps, less infectious than the current Coronavirus, but is many times more dangerous – with a mortality rate of anything between 60 and 80 percent. But the scenario that I describe in the book is not drawn from my imagination. It was based upon detailed pandemic planning done by both the British and the Americans in the early 2000s. These planning documents painted the horrific picture that I used to colour in the detail of “Lockdown”.
And we are now seeing that same planning swinging into action to deal with Covid-19. Unthinkable both then and now. But it’s happening.
DEMAND FROM READERS
In truth, I had literally forgotten about my unpublished book. It wasn’t until someone on Twitter suggested that I write a thriller set against the backdrop of a Coronavirus lockdown that I suddenly realised that I had already done just that. Someone else made the same suggestion. Then when a reader on my Facebook author page begged me to write something new to read during the tedious hours of quarantine, I suggested that I might publish an old manuscript from 15 years ago that was set during a global pandemic in a locked down London. The suggestion was greeted with a chorus of approval.
I mentioned it to my editor at Quercus, and he couldn’t believe that I had such a manuscript buried away beneath the layers of discarded pixels in my old files. He asked to see it, and in fact read the document I sent him overnight. I woke up the following morning to an email which declared it to be “a brilliant novel.” Suddenly what I had written about in 2005 was no longer “OTT” or “unrealistic”. It was actually happening.
The rest is history.
They say that every dog has its day. Maybe books do, too. When I originally wrote “Lockdown”, no matter how well researched or accurate the dystopian picture it painted, no one could identify with it. Now everyone can. It is our common experience. And isn’t that what writers are supposed to do – describe and explore the human condition, the world we experience as a human race?
I don’t claim the prescience that my writing history might suggest. But I think my interest in subjects medical and scientific, and the detailed researches I have done for my books, sometimes puts me a little ahead of the curve. And as I sit here in France, confined to my own home – like so many others around the world – I can only hope that there is a better outcome for us all than “Lockdown” might predict.
A CITY IN QUARANTINE
London, the epicentre of a global pandemic, is a city in lockdown. Violence and civil disorder simmer. Martial law has been imposed. No-one is safe from the deadly virus. The Prime Minister himself is dead. Health and emergency services are overwhelmed.
A MURDERED CHILD
At a building site for a temporary hospital, construction workers find a bag containing the rendered bones of a murdered child. D.I. Jack MacNeil, counting down the hours on his final day with the Met, is sent to investigate.
A POWERFUL CONSPIRACY
As a bizarre mosaic of evidence appears to link the murdered child to the pandemic itself, the virus claims the life of his son. Jack has been directly exposed. But sinister forces are tracking his every move, prepared to kill again to conceal the truth. Which one will stop him first – the virus or the killers?
Giving Back in Time of Need
I have taken the decision to donate the money from the advance that I have received for LOCKDOWN to various charitable organisations involved with supporting health workers, victims and others suffering as a result of Covid-19.
BEHIND THE SCENES
A Silent Death will be published in January 2020, and before its publication, I thought I would share some of the research and development that went into the writing of the book.
The story is set in Spain, where a Scottish police officer has been seconded to the Spanish authorities to assist with the manhunt for a fugitive from British justice.
About eight years ago I bought an apartment overlooking the Mediterranean, a little to the west of the Spanish resort town of Estepona. Since then I have spent most of my winters there to escape the cold of my home in south-west France. In a little study looking out over a sparkling sunlit sea I have written my last six books. It is a part of Spain with which I have become very familiar and I have wanted to write about it for some time.
I should mention that I have had a love affair with Spain ever since meeting two sisters at a resort on the Costa Brava when I was a young teenager in the early sixties. They were from Barcelona – Cristina and Nurita – and I borrowed their names for the characters of the young Spanish policewoman and her sister. Those real-life sisters were the inspiration for the first book I ever wrote, between the ages of fourteen and sixteen. Needless to say, that first book was never published, but I have never forgotten Cris and Nuri, although I have never had any contact with them since. I have no idea if they are still alive, or will ever read this book.
THE PRINCIPLE CHARACTER
In A Silent Death I wanted to create a character who went against the grain of the classic hero. Not in the sense that he would be a drunk or a junkie or imbued with unpleasant characteristics or a questionable morality. But someone who was too damned clever for his own good.
John Mackenzie has an IQ that is simply off the scale, and as is so often the case with very clever people, absolutely no filter when it comes to social interactions. He says what he sees and thinks, because to him his view of the world is so self-evidently correct. He makes no allowance for the offence he might give, or the hurt he might cause. Not because he doesn’t care, but because he doesn’t understand the vulnerability of others to the brutal bluntness of his “truth”. His world is black and white, good and bad. There is no room for compromise.
For inspiration in the construction of this character I turned to my two brothers-in-law. Both are startlingly intelligent, and although they have never met have both been hugely successful in the world of computer system analysis – one in England, one in America.
One installed computer systems all over the world for a multi-national corporation, the other was employed as a freelance consultant by major organisations initialising untried computer systems in areas of financial or logistical sensitivity. Each had an unerring propensity for rubbing employers and co-workers up the wrong way. Both manage to offend friends and family with regular ease, never with intent, but always with surprise and regret when the effect of their words becomes belatedly apparent.
Since retirement, one has developed a hobby of studying languages and taking university degrees in a whole range of arcane subjects, like quantum physics, and astronomy. The other has found part-time employment in an industry which makes use of his astonishing ability to absorb and remember facts.
The latter has read the manuscript of “A Silent Death”. I often give him copies of my manuscripts to proof read because of his amazing memory and attention to detail. He picks up the tiniest of errors that the rest of us have missed. I think it would be fair to say that he recognised elements of himself in the character of Mackenzie, not least his obsessive insistence that all the shirts in his wardrobe must have a breast pocket capable of accommodating his mobile phone.
DEAF AND BLIND
One of the other main characters in A Silent Death is deaf and blind.
I first developed a consciousness about the phenomenon of deaf-blindness after watching a TV ad appealing for money for a deaf-blind charity. I wondered what on earth it must feel like to be deaf AND blind. It was unthinkable. To lose both primary senses and become trapped within yourself, your own body becoming a prison confining you in a world of darkness and silence.
I began research on the subject and discovered that it was more prevalent than one might expect. There are nearly 400,000 sufferers around the world, with that figure expected to rise to 600,000 in the next fifteen years. One of the most common causes is a genetic disease known as Usher Syndrome in which the victim develops partial or total hearing loss that worsens over time.
I decided to explore this illness through the character of a middle-aged woman, Ana, delving into her experience through a first person narration. Although not the principal character, she is central to the story. We discover that she was afflicted in early childhood with hearing problems, then diagnosed with Usher Syndrome in her teens, when she developed “night blindness”, which is often a precursor to vision loss caused by a disease known as retinitis pigmentosa, or RP. We accompany her on her nightmare journey into complete hearing loss and total blindness, and through her limited senses learn first hand about the book’s main antagonist when he takes her hostage.
For inspiration, and an authentic take on what it might be like to be deaf and blind, I delved into a book called “Deaf-Blind Reality – Living the Life”, edited by Scott M Stoffel, himself a deaf-blind sufferer. It presented extensive interviews with 12 victims from around the world, describing their experiences from childhood to adulthood, and sometimes old age, and gave me an extraordinary insight into their world. A world of bullying and neglect, by peers, and teachers, and society in general. It made me angry, and even more determined to cast light on their suffering through Ana.
The only channel of communication for deaf-blind sufferers with the world around them has come with the development of technologies that provide braille screens that allow them to surf the internet and exchange messages with others. There is even a service that enables telephone conversations via an operator who can pass on vocal or braille messages and respond in kind. But with so comparatively few sufferers worldwide, investment in finding medical solutions is tiny, and the hope of a future cure equally so.
The book takes place in the south of Spain.
But not the Spain of sun, sea and sand that characterises the British holidaymaker’s image of the Costa del Sol. I wanted to get under the skin of this superficially beautiful part of the world, lifting stones to reveal the flip side of the seaside paradise depicted in travel agents’ brochures. To write about the “Costa del Crime”, that monicker so beloved of the tabloid headline writers. The reality that lurks just a few streets away from the seafront facades of bars and restaurants that look out on crowded beaches. A much darker world of drug-running and people trafficking. Of gangs and violence and the seeds of social unrest sown by a turbulent history of Moorish occupation and Catholic resistance.
Much of this other side of southern Spain was revealed to me during an interview with the chief of police in a hill town which is the administrative centre for a length of coastline that stretches east and west along the south coast, and north towards its mountainous interior. He happily introduced me to his handgun and holster, before taking me on a detailed tour of the police station. There were interview rooms and detectives’ offices, a gun room, and an evidence room where he laid out a huge array of lethal weapons seized during recent raids on local drugs gangs. Parts of the town, it seemed, were virtually no-go areas for the police. Derelict buildings – in fact, housing developments unfinished since the financial collapse of 2007/8 – had been taken over to become the headquarters of such gangs.
But these gangs are not just operating at street level. They are trafficking industrial quantities of drugs – heroin and cocaine. The police have trouble arresting gang members for more than minor possession. The big drugs hauls are sent out into the hills, to be stored in the barns and outhouses of peasant farmers who are coerced into cooperation. While I was researching the book, a whole family of innocent farmers was slaughtered by gang members when they went to retrieve drugs from the wrong farm by mistake.
People trafficking, too, is a booming industry – less lucrative perhaps than drugs, but also less risky, with smaller sentences for those who are caught.
Increasingly boats are arriving along the south coast of Spain from North Africa – a relatively short crossing. There are many reports of sunbathing holidaymakers startled to see ragged lines of illegal immigrants piling off ramshackle boats that have washed up on the beaches. Clutching their meagre possessions, they quickly melt away into the hills beyond, where they are met by the people traffickers who guide them to temporary accommodation in any one of the hundreds of abandoned developments that pepper the coastline.
In the early two thousands, developers seemed to believe that there would be no end to the influx of wealthy Russians and Europeans flocking to the sun to buy apartments. But with the collapse of financial institutions worldwide towards the end of the decade, both money and buyers dried up, and hundreds of developments were simply abandoned. Some had only just been started, others were near completion. All are now crumbling in the searing heat of the sun, and nature is gradually reclaiming what had been taken from it. Cranes hired during the boom stand idly, like so many lost dinosaurs, looming over these scars on the landscape – the companies that owned them long since gone bust, just like the companies who hired them. Such places can be scary and dangerous.
The influence of a new generation of moneyed Russians is plain to see all around. Many of the billionaire yacht owners who dock their boats in the marina at the fashionable Puerto Banus are Russian. There are Russian clubs and restaurants, and more and more apartments are being snapped up by Russian tourists. Vladimir Putin himself is rumoured to own a large estate in the hills behind Marbella, flying in by helicopter from his yacht anchored out in the bay.
During my visit to the police station, I met a young policewoman who was wheeled in by the police chief to show me her uniform. She became the model for the other principal character in the book, Cristina – a young, married policewoman with a ten-year-old son, a crumbling marriage and a sister who is undergoing treatment for breast cancer. In a still male-dominated society where policewomen are employed only to meet the requirement for someone to search female suspects, juggling the responsibilities of a mother, wife and police officer is an almost impossible task. In my story Cristina is struggling to keep her head above this turbulence when she is attached, unwillingly, to John Mackenzie who has been sent by the National Crime Agency in the UK to track down and bring back a fugitive from British justice. A hard-working, honest and down-to-earth woman, she is unprepared for the social ineptitude of her new partner, or for a confrontation with death that will change her life.
A substantial element of Cristina’s character was based on my local research assistant, a divorced mother of a young son living in a small apartment in the administrative town which became my fictitious Marviña in the book. I used her chaotic apartment as the model for Cristina’s (she recognised it immediately when she read the manuscript), and I borrowed the name of her son, Lucas, for the character of the policewoman’s boy. She introduced me to the mysteries of the Spanish funeral, and the centuries old culture which still shapes the people there.
The final part of the book takes place in Gibraltar, that giant rock which casts its ubiquitous shadow all along the southern Spanish coast. It is always there, somehow, in the telling of the story, and seemed like the perfect setting for the denouement of the book.
I made two visits to The Rock. The first was to gain a general impression of this outpost of a long lost British Empire, where almost 96 percent voted to remain in Europe – only to be dragged out against their will. A febrile sense of uncertainty suffused the atmosphere of the place when I was there, with the prospect of the reintroduction of a hard border with Spain ruining the lives and careers of many thousands of people living in the territory. I was surprised to discover that while its residents steadfastly call themselves British, the ethnicity of the population is hugely diverse, with many deriving from a range of other European and African countries such as Italy, Portugal, Greece, Malta and Morocco. Only 13 percent come from the UK, with little more than twice that number possessing British surnames. And yet as you step across the border from Spain, almost the first thing you see is an old-fashioned red British telephone box.
My second visit took me high up on the rock to research the detailed specifics of the story’s end. But I won’t go into details here, because I don’t want to spoil the book for you!
My latest book, A Silent Death, a brand new thriller set in the South of Spain near Gibraltar will be coming out in January in the UK and March in the USA and I will be touring both sides of the Atlantic to celebrate the launch. Below are the dates of the UK tour. (Details of my April trip to the USA and Canada will be coming soon.)
Monday 13th January – Glasgow Aye Write Special Event with Waterstones – Mitchell Theatre 6.30pm Tickets £9 – click here for booking details
Tuesday 14th January – Perth Theatre – the Joan Knight Studio – Perth Library – 7.30pm Tickets £7 – click here for booking details
Wednesday 15th January – Inverness – Eden Court Theatre in association with Waterstones 6.30pm Tickets £5 – click here for booking details
Thursday 16th January – Edinburgh – The Edinburgh Central Library, George IV Bridge, in association with Blackwells 6.30pm (tickets free, but must be reserved) – click here for booking details
Friday 17th January – Edinburgh – Toppings, Greenside Church, 1b Royal Terrace, Edinburgh 7.40pm (ticket prices vary, but redeemable against a copy of book) – click here for booking details
Tuesday 21st January – London – Hatchards, Piccadilly 6.30pm Tickets £10 – click here for booking details
Happy New Year! And I’m happy to announce the publication of The Man With No Face. This book was originally written and published in 1981, it’s a fast-moving political thriller is set in 1979 but is contemporary in its themes, which is why my editor suggested it was time for a new edition.
Set on the eve of a UK general election, the topic on everyone’s lips is Britain’s membership of the European Union. Political conspiracies, freedom of the press, corruption and assassinations, all set in the pre-internet era, when nobody had mobile phones and information was slower to travel and easier to conceal.
The Man With No Face
A REPORTER WITH NO FEAR
Brussels, 1979. Jaded Edinburgh journalist Neil Bannerman arrives in the capital of European politics intent on digging up dirt. Yet it is danger he discovers, when two British men are found murdered.
A CHILD WITH NO FATHER
One victim is a journalist, the other a Cabinet Minister: the double-assassination witnessed by the former’s autistic daughter. This girl recalls every detail about her father’s killer – except for one.
THE MAN WITH NO FACE
With Brussels rocked by the tragedy, Bannerman is compelled to follow his instincts. He is now fighting to expose a murderous conspiracy, protect a helpless child, and unmask a remorseless killer.
Meet me on the launch tour for “The Man With No Face”
Monday 14th January – Glasgow
6.30pm – Book Talk
Venue: Mitchell Library, North Street, Glasgow G3 7DN
Tuesday 15th January – Perth
7pm – Book Talk
Venue: St John’s Kirk, St John’s Place, Perth PH1 5SZ
Wednesday 16th January – Inverness
6.30pm – Book Talk
Venue: Eden Court Theatre, Inverness
Thursday 17th January – Edinburgh
6.30pm – Book Talk
Venue: Edinburgh Central Library, George IV Bridge, Edinburgh
Friday 18th January – Edinburgh
12 noon – Signing
Venue: WH Smiths, Unit 14, 33 Gyle Avenue, EH12 9JT
I’ll Keep You Safe reached #2 in the UK hardback charts and has just been published in the USA and Canada.
The good news is that publication dates are bringing North America closer with the UK, Australia and New Zealand.
The hard cover edition of I’ll Keep You Safe came out last week in the USA and Canada, so readers in North America are no longer having to wait a whole year for the latest book. It is hoped that in the future, the publication dates of the English language editions will be simultaneous worldwide.
The paperback edition of I’ll Keep You Safe will be published in the UK in July.
The Lewis Trilogy takes Norway by storm
This week the final book in the Lewis Trilogy hits the streets of Norway and the expectations are high that it will follow the success of the first two books. The Norwegians are really taking the trilogy to their hearts.
The Norwegian editions of The Blackhouse and The Lewis Man have spent months in the best seller lists and are currently still at #8 and #9 in the hard cover chart, with The Blackhouse also showing at #12 in the paperback chart after publication last September!
In addition, The Blackhouse has just been shortlisted as one of the top 5 translated crime novels in Norway for 2017.
This is all great news for the tiny publishing house Goliat Forlag who put so much effort and enthusiasm into the publication.
Long live small independent publishing houses!
Tiger Garte, Mark Jørgensen and Thea Dahlgren of Goliat Forlag publishers celebrating the publication of the final book in the Lewis Trilogy.
A few months ago I came across a Kickstarter project called Nae Pasaran. I was intrigued to read that a Chilean documentary-maker working in Scotland had completed filming the story of Rolls Royce workers at East Kilbride, near Glasgow, who in the 1970s had blocked the servicing of jet engines from the planes of Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet.
Pinochet who, with US connivance, had overthrown the democratically elected socialist régime of Chile in 1973, was cracking down ruthlessly on the population of his country. He interned as many as 80,000 people, torturing thousands more, and executed somewhere between 1200 and 3200. (There is a wonderful Jack Lemon film set during this time, called “Missing”). He also bombed civilians in Santiago.
It was this persecution that prompted the workers at East Kilbride to boycott the servicing of the Chilean jet engines, thereby grounding many airforce planes, and undoubtedly saving civilian lives.
The engines were put under wraps and sat untouched in the works yard for several years until one day they mysteriously disappeared.
The story so intrigued Chilean filmmaker, Felipe Bustos Sierra, that he raised the money to make a documentary about it, which he called “Nae Pasaran” – a kind of Scottish version of the Spanish for “thou shalt not pass”. Unfortunately, he ran out of money to pay for the post-production editing of film and sound, and launched a Kickstarter project to raise the funds to finish it.
Since I was very much around in the seventies when this was all happening, working as a journalist in Glasgow, I felt that it was a project worth a donation. I, along with others, provided the cash that has enabled Felipe to bring the project to a conclusion. And the Glasgow Film Festival has now invited “Nae Pasaran” for a screening at its closing night gala on March 4th, when it will have it’s world première.
Sadly, I wont be able to go, but have been promised a DVD as compensation.
And one of those Rolls Royce workers, Stuart Barrie, renowned over the years for his poetry, has written a poem in my honour, which I found very touching. Here it is:
‘Nae Pasaran’ was in a knot
Needing finance booster shot
When from mists Peter walked out
Planted seeds that soon would sprout
No story of Scot’s engineers !
No story of the Chilean tears !
No story of the engines ‘blacking’ !
Without your coins, without your backing
This poem is part, of the barter
For your generous Kickstarter
donation given with fine heart
Enjoy these verses a la carte
Born Glasgow nineteen fifty-one
Keelys were pale from lack of sun
Lead in water pipes way back then
Made keely’s depressed now and again
But Peter was fine, that was until
He got ground down in the ‘Savings’ mill
Lines of figures, endless numbers
Sinking fast in toxic slumbers
So being pure gallus, being a chancer
(He wisnie dolly, he had an answer)
“If I stay here, I’ll melt down”
So Peter did a runner to London town
Then back to Glasgow, back he came
Trainee Car Salesman, (job without shame)
Left in a year, then did a course
That fed his heart and vital force
To work in Paisley to report
On Buddie’s lives, their days in court
So up the ladder, on his bike
Over to the Scotsman, that was a hike
Worked for Roy then Ken the son
Building his craft for the long end run
Like tousled hair, looking for a comb
Glasgow called its own son home
As Evening Times, ‘Background Writer’
Honed his skills, pulled it tighter
Then off to the ‘telly’, to use his theories
Purvey his art in scripts and series
Words vocation, a spate in flood
Story and synopsis ran in his blood
Standard, Squadron, High Road, Machair
Literary dervish, apprentice Voltaire
At the ripe old age of forty five
From chrysalis came a butterfly
Peter May … word gourmet
Left the telly … flew away
His first love once again embraced
His appetite was most unchaste
His trade now learned, his art refined
Li Yan forensic mastermind
appeared from out of Peter’s head
To solve the riddles of the dead
Now west to France for cold case files
Peter and Enzo, Scottish exiles
Produced Cast Iron, Blowback, Freeze Frame
Half of half dozen that brought French Fame
Next north to Lewis where spells are cast
Dark streams flow from Fin Mac’s past
Ah Pete my man ! Heyoka empaths !
Plumbing the soul in warm bloodbaths
Now in Saint-Céré you domicile
in some style, a Francophile
But nae good curries for some whiles
(The price that’s paid by Scotch eggs isles)
Hope you live long, hope you live well
Crack heart’s code for citadel
Now in autumn of your life
Within the grasp of freedom’s knife
Cooked all your meals, had your fill
Last page, last words, behold, be still.
It is with great sadness that I write, belatedly, in tribute to my friend and adviser on all things scientific, Professor Joe Cummins, who died just over two years ago after a lengthy battle with cancer.
I didn’t know of his death for over a year. Joe had worked and lived in London, Ontario, in Canada, for 23 years before retiring in 1996 from the University of Western Ontario to become Professor Emeritus in Genetics. I had not been in touch with him since completing my research for the book “Coffin Road”, about bees and neonicotinoids – a book inspired by Joe’s relentless search for answers to the mystery of the world’s disappearing bees. He had, at that time, been on dialysis, but I’d had no idea that death was so close.
My relationship with Joe spanned nearly twenty years, during which time he was my patient and tireless adviser on many books. But in all that time I never had the honour of meeting him in person. Our relationship was conducted entirely by email – and I have hundreds of our exchanges filed away in my mailer.
It was shortly after his retirement that I first encountered him online, when I was looking for an expert to advise me on genetics for my book, “The Firemaker”, the first in a series of thrillers set in China. He took me step-by-step through the process of genetically engineering foodstuffs – a highly complex scientific procedure not at all easy for the layman to understand.
My job was to grasp the basic principles, and makes them easily understood by a popular readership. Joe walked me through the complexities, enabling me to do just that. With great forbearance he answered all my silly questions, and spelled out for me with great clarity exactly how genetic modification works.
In doing so he conveyed to me the horrors of this process, and all the dangers that were, and are, being ignored by the biotech giants who are forcing their technologies upon us in relentless pursuit of profit, and with scant regard for the dangers to the environment and the human race. This very much shaped the story I told in my book.
Joe Cummins was hugely qualified, being awarded a PhD in cell biology at the University of Wisconsin in 1962, before going on to do post doctoral research at the University of Edinburgh, the Universities of Palermo and Catania in Italy, the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, and the Macardle Laboratory for Cancer Research back in Wisconsin.
His interest focused more and more on the environment and in 1999 he joined the Institute of Science in Society, writing papers attacking biotech companies and the failure of bureaucrats to properly regulate them. During fifteen years he became a thorn in the side of US regulatory bodies governing agriculture, the environment, and food and drugs. To that end he wrote more than 200 scientific and popular articles.
In this role he was one of a team from the Institute which addressed the European Parliament on the subject of a GM-free Europe. He concluded with three points which he believed vital to the survival of humanity: the elimination of neonicotinoid pesticides, the eradication of Bt crops – and the need to replace all bureaucrats who turn a blind eye to the destruction of nature in favour of the biotech and agrochemical industry!
Joe was a veritable force of nature, who fought for all things natural. He was a kind, supremely generous man, with a great sense of humour, and an endless patience for this annoying writer.
I owe him an enormous debt of gratitude.
Latest Book and UK Launch Tour
an explosive return to the Hebrides with the brand new thriller….
I’ll Keep You Safe
Niamh and Ruairidh Macfarlane co-own the Hebridean company Ranish Tweed. On a business trip to Paris to promote their luxury brand, Niamh learns that Ruairidh is having an affair, and then looks on as he and his lover are killed by a car bomb. She returns home to Lewis, bereft.
I’LL ALWAYS BE THERE FOR YOU
Niamh begins to look back on her life with Ruairidh, desperate to identify anyone who may have held a grudge against him. The French police, meanwhile, have ruled out terrorism, and ruled in murder – and sent Detective Sylvie Braque to shadow their prime suspect: Niamh.
I’LL KEEP YOU SAFE, NO MATTER WHAT
As one woman works back through her memories, and the other moves forward with her investigation, the two draw ever closer to a deadly enemy with their own, murderous, designs.
“I’LL KEEP YOU SAFE”
UK TOUR – January 2018
Saturday 13th January – Isle of Lewis
Event at Lews Castle, Stornoway, Isle of Lewis
Tel for Ticket: 01625 416 457
Ticket email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Venue: Lews Castle
Address: Castle Grounds, Stornoway, HS2 0XS
Chairperson: Malcolm Maclean
Ticket price: £10 (including welcome drink)
Monday 15th January – Inverness
Event with Waterstone’s, Inverness
Tel for Tickets: 01463 233500/ 01463 234234
Tickets Website: www.eden-court.co.uk
Tel: 01463 233 500
Venue: Eden Court Theatre,
Address: Bishops Road, Inverness, IV3 5SA
Chairperson: Emma Murray
Tuesday 16th January – Glasgow
Aye Write Special Event in association with Waterstones & the Mitchell Library
Tickets website: http://tickets.glasgowconcerthalls.com/single/SelectSeating.aspx?p=13137
Tel for tickets: 0141 353 8000
Venue: Mitchell Library Theatre
Address: North Street, Glasgow, G3 7DN
Chairperson: Shari Low
Ticket Prices: £9
Wednesday 17th January – Perth
Event with Perth Library in association with Waterstone’s Perth
Tickets website: https://www.horsecross.co.uk/whats-on
Tel for tickets: 01738 621 031 or purchase at the box office
Venue: Perth Theatre,
Address: Mill Street, Perth PH1 5HZ
Chair: Fiona Stalker
Ticket prices: £7
Thursday 18th January – Edinburgh
Event with Waterstone’s Edinburgh
Tel for tickets: 0131 226 2666
Venue: Assembly Roxy
Address: 2 Roxburgh Place, Edinburgh EH8 9SU
Chairperson: Brian Taylor
Ticket Price: £20 (includes a copy of the book) / £8
Tuesday 23rd January – Steyning
Literary Dinner in association with Steyning Bookshop, Sussex
Tel for tickets: 01903 812062
Ticket: £30 (includes book and meal)
Venue: The Sussex Produce Café
Address: 88 High Street, Steyning BN44 3RD
Chairperson: William Shaw
Wednesday 24th January – Nottingham
Event in association with The Bookcase in Nottingham
Venue: St Mary’s Church,
Address: Church Lane, Lowdham, Notts, NG14 7BE
Tel for tickets: 0115 966 3219
Ticket Prices: £7 full/ £6 concession/ £5 Festival Friends
Friday 26th January – London Olympia
Event at the France Show, Olympia
Telephone for tickets: 01242 264777
Half price ticket promo code: PMTFS18 (Tickets £6 & booking fee £0.60)
Chairperson: Guy Wolley
Venue: London Olympia
Address of venue: Hammersmith Rd, London W14 8UX
Ticket Prices: £12 / £13.20 (with booking fee)
I will be speaking at festival events this summer across the UK…
- HARROGATE Crime Writing Festival: Saturday 22nd July 8.30pm (click here for details and tickets)
- EDINBURGH International Book Festival: Tuesday 15 August (tickets go on sale Tuesday 20th June)
- BLOODY SCOTLAND Crime Writing Festival in Stirling: Saturday 9th September 2pm (click here for details and tickets)
Cast Iron – the sixth and final book in the Enzo Files series – will be published in paperback in the UK on 27th July. buy now with FREE delivery worldwide
USA & CANADA
Cast Iron – the sixth and final book in the Enzo Files series – will be published in hard cover edition in North America on October 3rd.
Coffin Road – the standalone thriller set on the Isle of Harris will be published in paperback in North America on November 7th. click here to pre-order from Amazon.com
Coming in 2018…
A RETURN TO THE ISLANDS
I’m currently writing a new novel which will be published early 2018 on both sides of the Atlantic. Details of that will be released soon, but I can reveal that after opening in Paris, the action shifts to the Hebridean island of Lewis.
A warm welcome to all my readers in Norway, where “Svarthuset” – The Blackhouse – has been in the best seller lists for the last eight weeks!
Hei til alle mine Norske lesere!
Those of you who have read my thriller, “Coffin Road”, will know that some of the action takes place on one of a group of tiny islands twenty miles off the west coast of Lewis and Harris in the Outer Hebrides of Scotland.
They are the Flannan Isles, made famous at the start of the 20th century when three lighthouse keepers stationed on one of the seven islands disappeared without trace or explanation.
The lighthouse stood on the largest of the Flannans, Eilean Mor, and was state of the art at the time. However, regardless of what might have been happening on the outside, one of the keepers was obliged always to remain within. Yet when the relief vessel arrived in December 1900, all three were gone. Despite extensive investigation, their disappearance remains a mystery to this day.
A gift for a writer of crime and mystery books like myself.
But now a new adventure is set to bring the Flannan Isles back into public focus. One which, hopefully, will have a much happier ending.
Three swimmers from the Western Isles – Ed Smith, Colin S. Macleod and Stuart Baird – are set to undertake a hugely dangerous relay swim from Eilean Mor, across twenty-one miles of treacherous Atlantic Ocean, to Uig on the south-west coast of Lewis.
Why are they undertaking this dangerous journey? To raise funds for the Royal National Lifeboat Institution (RNLI) – the lifeboat charity that rescues an average of 22 people every day from around the shores of the United Kingdom.
And this isn’t the first time these young men have put their lives on the line to save the lives of others. In August 2015 they swam, in relay, the sixty miles of Atlantic from St. Kilda to Huishinish on the west coast of Harris. Following the success of that swim they were nominated for the 2016 Scottish Adventure Awards, and picked-up the team prize.
You can read all about that adventure here: http://stkildaswim.co.uk
The Flannan Isles swim will take place during the week of 12th to 19th August this year, when it is hoped to raise £1000. Ed, Colin and Stuart will swim, relay-style, in 45-minute bursts, supported by the crew of the Mv Cuma, and three kayakers. You can read all about it on a website specially created for the occasion, and can also make your online donation to the event from there:
I am going to kick-off the fundraiser with a personal donation of £100, and would be more than happy if any of my readers felt moved to make a donation themselves, no matter how small.
Good luck, lads!
After almost twenty years of writing a book every year, 2016 was going to be a year where I wasn’t writing a book – a year off.
I wrote Cast Iron, the final book in the Enzo Macleod series at the end of 2015, but my so-called “year off” began with a period of promotional tours.
Around the World in 85 days
January 2016 was spent doing events in the UK, Spain and France, and in February I undertook a book tour of Australia and New Zealand. I was overwhelmed by the warmth of the reception and could hardly believe it when I found myself speaking to crowds of two thousand people at events in Adelaide!
There’s a picture of the Adelaide Festival events below (I’m the tiny speck under the blue canopy on the right).
“Coffin Road” sold out in Australia and New Zealand and while waiting for the reprint to arrive, a special shipment of copies had to be sent from the UK to ensure I had enough books for the crowds who came to see me.
From Australia I went to the USA for what was mostly a holiday, though I did manage to catch up with some US fans at an event at Book Carnival in Orange, California.
My American sojourn finally came to an end and we returned home to France, 85 days and 30,000 miles later, but it wasn’t going to be home for long.
Most of my summer was eaten up with moving house. The new house is still in France just 15 minutes along the road from our old one, but packing up hundreds of books and clearing 20-odd years of accumulated junk out of the attic and outbuildings was a time-consuming process!
Our new house also had quite a lot of work to be done on it, so it took about three months to make the transition. The final removal day was in the height of summer with temperatures reaching 40 degrees Centigrade (that’s 104 Fahrenheit)!
Speaking of France, I’ve had a house here for almost 30 years and it has been my permanent home for the last 15 of those.
This year, after a very lengthy process involving language tests, interrogations, and lots and lots of paperwork, my wife and I were granted French nationality.
As French TV reported, I went from being:
“the most French of all Scotsmen,”
“the most Scottish of all Frenchmen”
“the most Scottish of all Frenchmen”
Anyway, I have recorded a video message if you want to know more about my news, and upcoming books, you can hear it straight from the horse’s mouth…
CAST IRON – out in UK on 12th January
buy now with FREE delivery worldwide
The final adventure in the Enzo Macleod series of books, Cast Iron, can be read as a standalone,
but if you haven’t read the earlier books in the series,
you might like to check them out first.
Click here to read all about Enzo Macleod and his investigations
Cast Iron will be published in the UK on 12th January 2017 and I will be touring the UK visiting Glasgow Edinburgh, Perth, Norwich, Cambridge, Oxford, Manchester, and London.
Click here for full details of the tour
Good News for my North American readers
Coffin Road was published in October 2016 and I’m pleased to say that during 2017 publication dates will come into alignment with the UK, so that by January 2018 books will be published simultaneously on both sides of the Atlantic.
To mark this, a tour of Canada and the USA is planned for early 2018.
I’m delighted that Quercus’ new imprint riverrun is bringing my series of six China thrillers back into print. The books were first published between 1999 and 2004 and the background to the books charts the extraordinary changes that took place in the country as it opened up to financial partnerships with the west.
My interest in China goes back a long way. My first visit to the People’s Republic was pure chance. I was in Hong Kong researching another book which was going to be set in South-East Asia, and my hotel was advertising a one-day trip to Shenzhen in southern China. I jumped at the chance.
We went by train and by coach, and when we stepped off the bus in Shenzhen itself it was as if we had arrived on another planet. It was 1983, just a handful of years after the end of the Cultural Revolution, and very little had changed since the Communists took power in 1949. The streets were jammed with bicycles, and everyone still wore their blue Mao suits. Little old ladies hobbled around on bound feet – a horrible hangover from the days of Imperial China.
The open air markets were like mediaeval street scenes, animals being hacked up on long wooden tables with huge bloodied choppers, bone and fur and flesh everywhere. Westerners were an irresistible curiosity. Almost nobody had a television set, and the country had been closed to the outside world for decades. And if I thought the Chinese were strange, they thought I was even stranger. There I was, six feet-two, blond hair, ginger beard, a completely alien sight on the streets of China. And huge crowds of people simply followed me around, staring open-mouthed.
I had an extraordinary sense of having arrived somewhere special, a society preserved as in aspic, and I knew immediately that I wanted to write about it.
I went away and spent the next eight years reading everything I could about the country – its history, its politics, its culture, its cuisine – and watched with the rest of the world as the horrors of Tiananmen Square unravelled before me on my television screen in 1989.
In 1991 I returned, this time in search of a story. I went to Beijing on a tourist visa, but spent my days and nights exploring the city, talking to people, getting a sense of the place. Although the new, modern Beijing, under Deng Xiaopeng, was already springing up around me, it still felt hugely alien. No one spoke English. Street signs, menus, shop names, maps, everything was written in Chinese characters. Even the Pinyin romanisation of Chinese was rare.
At that time they had built six ring roads around the city, all of which were eerily empty. Vast bike lanes flowed with a stream of blue-suited, black-haired humanity, and people still gawped at us everywhere we went.
I befriended a tour guide who was eager to talk to me about the events in Tiananmen Square two years before. One night he took us to his home at the end of a line of squat, concrete pillboxes in a dark, unlit alley. He, his wife, their baby, and their babysitter (a peasant girl from the country), lived in one tiny room that contained two beds, a table, a couple of armchairs and a huge television set. The kitchen was a concrete cubicle barely big enough to turn around in. An outside toilet was shared with the other residents of the block.
He showed us illicit video taken during the Tiananmen Square protests, and warned us to be careful when we left, because the Street Committee would be watching us. We rode back through the city well after midnight in an almost empty bus, the only other passengers on it with their eyes fixed on us.
I had thought that my story might revolve around events before, after or during the events of June 1989, and arranged by telephone to visit the offices of CNN in Wangfujing Street to see their archive of unbroadcast footage taken in and around the square. As it happened, there was a power cut (there were many in Beijing in those days), and when I reached the block where CNN had their offices on the fourth floor, the elevator was not available and I had to walk up.
When I got there the office was empty, except for bureau chief Mike Chinoy and an assistant provided by the Chinese government. But, of course, without power it was impossible to view the footage, and although I was able to sit and chat to Mike about the events of two years before, I always wondered if it was more than coincidence that prevented me from seeing that video.
I left Beijing empty-handed on that trip, but had learned a great deal, and was even more determined to use China as a setting for my next book. No one had set a crime thriller in Beijing at that point, just as no one had used Moscow as a setting before Gorky Park. I was absolutely intent on being the first to do it in China.
In the end, it was another six years before I returned. But this time I had a story, and a precious introduction to the Chinese police from a man revered by the country’s top cops.
The late Dr. Richard Ward, was an American criminologist who started life as a detective in the New York City police department. Sickened by the corruption he encountered on a daily basis, he quit to enrol at university and take a degree in criminology. His rise to acclaim by the international justice community followed quickly. He became the vice-chancellor of the University of Illinois in Chicago, where he set up an organisation called the Office of International Criminal Justice (OICJ), which brought police departments around the world together in an exchange of methods and information.
Then during the 1990s he spent several years in Shanghai training the top five hundred Chinese police officers in the latest Western policing techniques, and became a legend in the Chinese police.
Dick was my starting point when I began research on what was to become The Firemaker. I knew what my story would be, and that my two central characters would be a Beijing cop and an American female pathologist. I had already found technical advisors on pathology, and genetics (the subject of my story). But getting even a foothold on the steep learning curve that would be required to write authoritatively about the Chinese police was proving next to impossible. There was simply no information about their structure or methods anywhere, not in libraries or bookstores, nor on an internet then still in its infancy.
A contact put me in touch with Dr. Ward, and I wrote and asked if he would help me. He suggested we meet. He was giving a speech in Paris at a conference on international terrorism, and I was in France at the time. So we met for dinner in the French capital. I think, during that meal, I must have passed some kind of invisible litmus test, because texts, phone calls and emails then began flooding out of Dick’s office in Chicago to the Chinese capital. And when I arrived on that first research trip in June 1997, the doors to the Chinese police – normally firmly closed to foreigners – were thrown wide open for me.
I was the first Western writer to get this kind of access, taken under the wing of the Beijing police and admitted into an arcane world of oriental policing, unusual in its embrace of both ancient and traditional Chinese methods, and the very latest international forensic and computing techniques. During the next seven years, during frequent trips back and forth to China, I was given privileged insights into the workings of police departments in Beijing and Shanghai, allowed access to forensics and pathology facilities in both cities, visited police stations and holding cells, detectives’ offices and interrogation rooms. I rode in squad cars and ate in police canteens. And such was the influence of the Chinese police, that if I wanted access to anything not normally available to foreigners, they arranged it.
Interestingly, the branch of the Beijing Ministry of Public Security which hosted me, was the propaganda department. I quickly discovered that the Chinese interpretation of “propaganda” was a little different from ours in the West. This department of the Ministry was headed up by a top cop, Wu He Peng, and his job was to make movies and TV cop shows and publish crime fiction. He would, for example, have made the Chinese equivalent of Taggart, and the Chinese had been publishing the Sherlock Holmes stories and Agatha Christie, among others, all through the twentieth century.
Their philosophy was to show police and their investigations in a good light. Cops were always the good guys, and the baddies always got caught. That was the propaganda element of the job.
Wu He Peng had been appointed to this job as reward for catching four notorious criminals who had been robbing museums of priceless artefacts and smuggling them out of the country. One of the first things he did in his new job was make an eight-hour drama based on that investigation. He wrote it, produced it, and starred in it as himself, bringing him instant fame throughout China where the average nightly television audience is 500 million.
I also discovered that not only were the Chinese police avid consumers of crime fiction, they also loved to write stories. So much so that there is a course at the Beijing University of Public Security (the police university) entirely devoted to the history of Western crime fiction, and the propaganda department publishes several monthly magazines featuring short crime stories written by serving police officers.
The very first day of my first research trip I was taken to the University of Public Security. There I was introduced to the dean of the facility, and to a young serving police officer who had graduated some years before but returned from time to time to lecture to students. He was unusually tall and his nickname was Clinton (Bill was still then US President) because it rhymed with his name, Lin Tong. I spent some time chatting to Clinton after our initial meeting, and was hugely impressed by his quiet presence and thoughtful modesty. He immediately became the model for my Chinese cop, Li Yan.
That first research trip for The Firemaker was also my introduction to the man who would become my great friend and mentor, Dai Yisheng. He had been a firm friend of Dick Ward, and now became my sherpa during that and all subsequent visits to China. Mr. Dai was a retired policeman, and one of the most educated and well-read people I have ever met. A graduate of the American University in Beijing in the late nineteen-forties, he won a post-grad place at Cambridge University in England. For better or worse, this coincided with the Communist Party’s creation of the People’s Republic in 1949. He was torn. Should he stay to help build the new China, or take up his place at Cambridge? He decided to stay. But as an intellectual, perhaps considered dangerous to the new regime, he was ordered to become a policeman – in Tibet.
He and his wife were dispatched from their home in Sichuan Province, and told they would have to walk to his new job in Tibet. It took them three perilous months, traversing rivers in flood, trekking through forests, climbing mountains, before they finally reached his posting.
His life was a turbulent one, thrown in jail during the Cultural Revolution before finally being brought back to Beijing and receiving a high ranking post in an influential police department. Now retired, however, he had all the time in the world to devote to me and my researches. He took me places in Beijing that no foreigner had ever been. From him I gained invaluable insights into Chinese history and culture, the Chinese mentality in both everyday life and police investigations. I met the most extraordinary array of people inside and outside the justice system, and remember one night being smuggled by taxi from a backstreet restaurant, where I had been questioned by the local police, to the top secret HQ of the Beijing serious crime squad off a dark alleyway buried in the depths of the city.
Usually I met Mr. Dai in the lobby of my hotel, and we would head off for our destination together on bicycles. But once I visited his home in a seedy, 1950s soviet-style apartment block, where old men played chess in the basement. And it seemed like an ignominious end to the career and life of such a noble and intelligent man.
Mr. Dai became the inspiration for Li’s Uncle Yifu.
By the time I had returned in ’97 on that first research trip, English had become more widespread. Many restaurants were now featuring menus in English or Pinyin. And those ring roads were beginning to start filling up with more than taxis and buses and official vehicles. The great move away from the bicycle towards private cars was already underway.
And during all my subsequent visits, right up until 2004, I bore witness to the transformation of a country, from the closed, almost mediaeval world of Mao Zedong, to the vision of modern China set in train by Deng Xioaping. Those changes are reflected in the six books of The China Thrillers, which span probably the greatest and fastest period of change in Chinese history.
As I look back now, I can see the books as bearing witness to that change. From six empty ring roads to nine ring roads jammed end to end with private and commercial vehicles. From rivers of bicycles to the merest trickle of cyclists. From the Mongolian siheyuan courtyards which had been the traditional home of Beijingers for centuries, to high-rise modern apartment blocks.
It was a breathtaking transformation, reflected in each of the books.
The “bread cars” – the ubiquitous yellow vans used as taxis, and referred to frequently in The Firemaker – had been banned by the time I returned in 1999 in an attempt to reduce pollution.
The 50th anniversary of the People’s Republic that year, saw the abolition of the old green military-style police uniform, to a new smart black uniform similar to those found in police forces elsewhere around the world.
In the run-up to the 2004 Beijing Olympics, great swathes of the city were demolished by armies of hammer-wielding workmen, transforming the capital in the space of little more than twelve months into a bustling modern metropolis, with little sign of the history and hutongs that had been so apparent when I first arrived.
Mao suits disappeared to be replaced by the latest Western fashions. Everyone got mobile phones. Showrooms sprang up everywhere selling Mercedes and BMW. The insidious invasion of foreign culture brought McDonalds to Beijing street corners and, God forbid, even a Starbucks in the Forbidden City. English was becoming the common currency.
I feel privileged to have experienced Beijing and China as it had once been, and to have borne witness to its metamorphosis. The China Thrillers could hardly have been set at a time of greater change. And so I view the books now almost as modern historical documents. They tell us not only about the evolution in the relationship between Deputy Section Chief Li Yan and American pathologist Margaret Campbell, but bear testament to one of the most astonishing cultural transformations in recent history.
An approximate time scale of the series is as follows:
- The Firemaker – Summer of 1999
- The Fourth Sacrifice – Summer into autumn of 1999
- The Killing Room – Winter of 2000
- Snakehead – Summer of 2001
- The Runner – Winter of 2003
- Chinese Whispers – Autumn into winter of 2004
The new edition of the first book in the series, The Firemaker, is out now in paperback. The rest will follow shortly.
Now that the dust has settled on my three week trip to the Antipodes to promote my latest book, “Coffin Road”, I find myself looking back on my time in Oz with a certain wistful fondness.
I suppose most Brits have a fairly stereotypical view of Australia, fostered by the tabloid press, and television soaps like “Neighbours” and “Prisoner Cell Block H”. I had no real idea what to expect. All I knew for certain was that it was a helluva long way to go.
But despite the jet lag, my wife and I were blown away. Here was a country whose economy, tied to the phenomenal success of the Chinese, had prospered over the last eight years, while Europe and America had suffered stifling austerity, lack of investment, rising unemployment, crumbling infrastructure. What a contrast. Australia was bright and bold, modern (while still preserving the best of its colonial architecture), and with an energy and optimism that differed starkly from the depression and pessimism infecting the West.
I had events at the arts festivals in Perth and Adelaide, travelled to Sydney and Brisbane – with an excursion to New Zealand – and was delighted to find that interest in the arts could hardly be higher. All my Perth events were played to full houses. Two thousand people turned up for my events in Adelaide – right across the road from a venue where the Scottish National Theatre was performing the James Plays to full, enthusiastic houses. Nearly 200 crammed into a library in Brisbane. People everywhere were incredibly friendly, all infused with what seemed to me like a natural sense of confidence and spirit.
Here was a country riding the crest of its own wave of success. Were I twenty-five years younger, I might have been tempted to move there myself. I simply loved the energy and enthusiasm that I encountered everywhere we went. It helped, too, that the sun shone almost incessantly. We made trips down the Swan River to the old port town of Freemantle; toured the Barossa Valley, tasting the wonderful South Australia wines produced there; wandered the harbour areas of Sydney and ate in restaurants with amazing night views.
The one thing that might have cast a small shadow on the trip, was the wheel that came off my suitcase. When you are dragging 20 kilos around for weeks on end, a functioning suitcase that wheels easily in and out of airports and hotels is a must. So I was seriously dismayed when, landing at Auckland in New Zealand, to discover that one of the wheels on my case had been totally destroyed in transit. Not least because I had paid a considerable amount of money for a suitcase which could survive the serious amount of travelling I undertake each year. It was, however, still under warranty – although the warranty card was at home, back in France.
I looked up the makers, Delsey, online, and emailed their Australian office with photographs of the case and the shattered wheel, asking if they might be able to replace the broken part. They wrote back with the bad news that the wheel in question was no longer being manufactured and so couldn’t be replaced. But, then, to my amazement, they offered to replace the entire case. And by the time we booked into our Brisbane hotel, there it was waiting for us. So kudos to Delsey for pulling out all the stops and rescuing my tour from potential disaster.
Because of the length of travel involved in getting to Australia, I had pretty much decided before going that it would be a one-of trip. But now I would be happy to brave the flight and go back any time. Oz, it seems to me, provides the perfect template for a happy, prosperous, optimistic and energetic modern society. So it’s a big Thumbs Up for that place Down Under.
Peter May, California, March 2016
PS: It was particularly heartening that “Coffin Road” sold out Down Under and had to go to an emergency reprint in time for my arrival, with several thousand copies being shipped out from the UK to fill the immediate gap.
Dates and venues have just been confirmed for my tour of Australia and New Zealand…
Friday 19th February 11.30am – 12.30pm
Perth Writers’ Festival
Three masters of the crime genre, Peter May, Alan Carter and Garry Disher discuss their writing with Dawn Barker.
Free, no bookings
Saturday 20th February 4pm – 5pm
Perth Writers’ Festival
Alexander Lecture Theatre
Peter May, Debra Oswald and Fiona Wood (all screenwriters as well as novelists) talk to Ann Turner about screenwriting and writing books.
Free, no bookings
Sunday 21st February 11.30am – 12.30pm
Perth Writers’ Festival
Alexander Lecture Theatre
Ann Turner, Aoife Clifford and Peter May share their tools of the trade when it comes to spellbinding fiction. With John Harman.
Free, no bookings
Dunedin, New Zealand
Thursday 25th February 6pm
Dunedin City Library
Dunedin Writers & Readers Festival and the Centre of Irish & Scottish Studies at the University of Otago present
AN EVENING WITH PETER MAY Peter May
interviewed by Prof Liam McIlvanney
Sunday 28th February 10.45am – 11.45am
Adelaide Writers’ Week
Pioneer Women’s Memorial Garden
PETER MAY interviewed by Victoria Purman
Monday 29th February 2.30pm – 3.30pm
Adelaide Writers’ Week
Pioneer Women’s Memorial Garden
PETER MAY & MARGIE ORFORD discuss their crime writing
Friday 4th March 6.30 – 7.30pm
North Lakes Library
10, The Corso
North Lakes QLD 4509
An evening with Peter May
Doors open 6pm
First, I’d like to wish you all a very happy, healthy, and prosperous year in 2016!
And I’d like to thank my readers around the world for their continued – and growing – support. I met many hundreds of you in person at book events all over the UK, in France and in Italy, but I was very disappointed to have to cancel the US and Canada tour in 2015 because of unexpectedly having to go into hospital for surgery. The good news is that I’m fully recovered and I hope to make it over to North America later in 2016.
In January 2016 I will be on tour in the UK (details below) and in February/March I will be visiting Australia and New Zealand.
Bright Points of 2015
Looking back at 2015, Entry Island was shortlisted for the Theakston’s Crime Novel of the Year, The Lewis Man was shortlisted for the US Macavity award for Best Mystery Novel of the Year, I was shortlisted for the CWA Dagger in the Library, and the French version of Entry Island (L’Ile du Serment) won the Trophée 813 for Best Foreign Crime Novel awarded by the French magazine Review 813.
New Book – Coffin Road
In the Spring, I found myself back in one of my favourite places on earth, the Outer Hebrides of Scotland, researching my latest book, Coffin Road which will be published in the UK on January 14th, 2016.
I know a lot of people are pleased that I’m making a return to the Western Isles, and readers of the Lewis Trilogy will be happy to know that there will be at least one familiar face. Detective Sergeant George Gunn’s services are required when the dead body of a man is found near the lighthouse on the Flannan Isles.
The Flannan Isles are famous for their real-life hundred-year-old mystery of the three lighthouse keepers who went missing without trace. It’s a story that still captures the imagination, but the main draw for today’s tourist trips to the islands is bird-spotting. And in Coffin Road, on one such outing, the corpse in question is found and DS George Gunn is called in to investigate.
George was a much-loved personality in the Lewis Trilogy, with his humour, his compassion and his strong moral code. A warm-hearted and decent man, he always felt the need to do the right thing, even if that meant he had to interpret the rules in a very flexible way to accommodate his actions.
I was pleased to have the chance to spend time with him again, and this was a good opportunity for us to get to know him a little better.
I felt that I was back in the company of an old friend. And in a way, I was. It’s no secret that George Gunn bears more than a passing resemblance to the actual island policeman who guided me through procedure on the Hebrides when I first began my researches for The Blackhouse. That policeman – let’s just call him “George” for the moment – first welcomed me into his workplace and his home more than ten years ago, and he has been there for me, patiently answering my questions, and keeping me on the right track ever since.
“George”, with all his warmth and wisdom and wry wit, was a pleasure to be with, and I’m sure that readers will enjoy catching up once more with the character that he inspired.
This time, the action is concentrated on the Isle of Harris, where ice-age glaciers carved mountains and valleys out of the rock and there are some of the most breathtaking beaches in the world.
The Real Coffin Road
The Coffin Road of the title is four kilometres of rough track across the hills where, in centuries gone by, men from villages on the east side of the island carried their dead to the west where they could lay their loved ones to rest.
On the east coast, the bedrock lies only inches beneath the skin of the soil and digging a grave is impossible. And so the dead were carried from Loch Airigh on the east side, high up over the rough, rocky hills, past lochans, before descending through salt marsh to the stunningly beautiful Luskentyre beach on the west coast, where they could be laid to rest in the deep machair soil.
It was a difficult journey for those men, carrying the bodies of their loved ones across the island, at the mercy of the elements. But it was a necessity, a practicality, a fact of life – or death – for those folk who carved out their existence on the island.
But the genesis of Coffin Road, the book, came from a vision which has haunted me for a long time. I saw the vast expanse of Luskentyre beach on the Isle of Harris with dunes and mountains rising up all around and the clear turquoise ocean stretching into the distance. And in the midst of this breathtaking natural beauty a man dragging himself out of the water and staggering to his feet on the beach. Apparently the survivor of a boating accident, he remembers nothing about who he is, how he got there or what has happened.
Then, with the development of my story, came his only clue – a map with the coffin road traced in marker pen. Filled with a deep sense of dread, he knows that following in the footsteps of the dead is the only chance he has to restore meaning to his life, and that his only hope is that the coffin road will lead him to revelation.
It’s an inspiring beginning for the stuff of fiction, but the real inspiration for my story is rooted firmly in fact. It too, has been in my thoughts for a number of years. One of my expert advisors, Professor Joe Cummins, who has been providing scientific guidance for my books since the late 1990s, is professor emeritus of genetics at the University of Western Ontario in Canada. He is one of the foremost scientists involved in the campaign to protect agriculture and the environment from the contamination of genetically modified crops and the blanket use of pesticides.
Several years ago he alerted me to the potential disaster that was looming due to our dwindling bee population, and the repercussions for the world if no action was taken. Along with other insect pollinators, the bee is responsible for the production of one mouthful of food in every three that we eat. Without bees there would be widespread famine.
He was one of the first scientists to address the European parliament on the dangers. Little was known about the reasons for dwindling bee populations back then, and research was needed.
A few years down the line and bee colonies have been disappearing in greater numbers all over the world. There are many reasons: changes in farming methods which have destroyed their natural foraging habitat; disease, often spread by unregulated transportation of bees around the world; the changing climate. But above all, a body of scientific evidence that points towards the use of a new breed of pesticides called neonicotinoids.
The problem is – as I found out when I tracked some of them down – that the scientists who are bringing this information to light are finding themselves in direct conflict with the billion-dollar agro-chemical industry.
Further research revealed that the setting I required for my story had very specific requirements. It needed to be a location that was free from large-scale farming. Somewhere pure – uncontaminated by pesticides and agricultural chemicals. Somewhere remote – well off the beaten track, wild and untamed.
The Isle of Harris was calling me. It was the perfect place. And what better opportunity would I have to realise my vision for that opening scene of the man staggering to his feet, drenched an confused, than in one of the most dramatic and beautiful locations in the world?
And so we return to Luskentyre beach on the Isle of Harris, and a to man who is washed up without memory or reason…
To whet your appetite here is a video with images from Luskentye and the coffin road, set to music by the Darkside Owls and their song “Gone but not Forgotten” which was inspired by the book (available from itunes now).
COFFIN ROAD (January 2016, UK)
Thursday 14th January 7pm
Glasgow – centre
The Mitchell Library
Monday 18th January 1pm
The Mitchell Library, North St, Glasgow G3 7DN
Book Online – http://tickets.glasgowconcerthalls.com/single/SelectSeating.aspx?p=4908Or buy tickets from box office on 0141 353 8000
Glasgow – Newton Mearns
Waterstones, The Avenue Shopping Centre
Monday 18th January 7pm
Tuesday 19th January at 7pm
Edinburgh Central Library,
Wed 20 Jan 2016, 7pm
Thursday 21st January 7pm
Monday, January 25th at 7pm
Tickets: call 01865 333623 for more information or email events.oxford@Blackwell.co.uk
London – Piccadilly
Tuesday 26th January 6.30pm
It is with great sadness today that I have to record the passing of my friend and mentor Dr. Richard Ward.
Dick was one of the most remarkable men I ever met. After serving as a US Marine, he began his working life as a New York beat cop and went on to become an NYPD detective, but rebelled against corruption in the force and took a university degree in criminology.
From there he moved into teaching, and while Vice Chancellor of the University of Illinois in Chicago, set up the Office of International Criminal Justice (OICJ) which reached out to law enforcement agencies throughout the world, exchanging ideas, co-operation and criminology students.
It was during this time that he spent several years in China, effectively training the top five hundred Chinese police officers in the latest Western policing techniques, and it was this connection that led to my first encounter with him in 1997.
Planning a crime novel set in China, I was seeking information and contacts about the Chinese police at a time when the entire Chinese justice system was a closed book to outsiders. A friend of Dick’s recommended that I speak to him, so I contacted him by email.
I was in France at the time, and by sheer coincidence Dick was coming to Paris to address a conference on international terrorism. Quite rightly, he wanted to run the rule over me before committing himself. And so we arranged to meet for dinner in Paris. It was a convivial affair, with both our wives present, and I remember a great deal of laughter. I passed, I think, some kind of invisible litmus test, because following our meal a flurry of texts, emails and phone calls opened doors for me in China which had hitherto been closed to any foreign writers or journalists.
It was a little like getting an introduction to the Mafia from a “made man”. When I arrived in Beijing for my first research trip, I was taken under the wing of the Ministry of Public Security and given access to virtually whatever I asked for. That began a long association with China and the Chinese police (who invited me to write a monthly column for their official magazine) which lasted almost a decade, and during which I wrote the six novels of the China Thrillers series, becoming also an honorary member of the Beijing Chapter of the Chinese Crime Writers’ Association.
One of those books was set in the US, though still with a very strong Chinese connection, and it was while researching that book that I went to stay with Dick and his wife and daughter at their ranch just outside Huntsville in Texas, where Dick was by that time Dean of the College of Criminal Justice at Sam Houston State University. He set up research visits for me to one of the high security prisons in Huntsville, as well as a very sobering tour of the “death house” where, in that year, then Governor George W. Bush had already sent thirty-four prisoners to be executed by lethal injection.
I took the liberty of basing one of my characters on Dick, using his ranch as a location – and I recall him taking humorous exception to my description of the mess in his garage.
He used to sit of an evening in a conservatory appended to the back of his house and smoke his favourite (illicit) Cuban cigars. I recall him telling me the story, over a glass of fine malt, of his returning to the US from a trip to Cuba with something like two thousand contraband cigars in his suitcase. His heart was in his mouth as he was stopped at customs, only to discover that the customs officer was one of his former pupils. They chatted animatedly for a few moments before the customs man tapped the suitcase on the counter in front of him and said, “I don’t suppose there’s anything in there that I need to look at, Dr. Ward?” “Not at all,” said Dick, and he was waved through with a handshake and a smile. (Of course, who knows, that might just have been apocryphal.)
Probably Dick’s most significant legacy was his creation in 2002, while still in Texas, of the ISVG – the Institute for the Study of Violent Groups. In a handful of innocent-looking suburban homes behind white picket fences, Dick established with criminology students from around the world what has become the largest and most comprehensive open-source database on violent extremism and transnational terror. With custom-designed software, his students amassed an enormous relational database identifying trends, relationships and tactics of terrorist groups all over the globe, using only information freely available in the media and on the net. Having moved latterly to Connecticut, with Dick himself, the ISVG has become the go-to source of information for all anti-terrorist and homeland security organisations in America.
He also wrote several hugely influential books on the subject of crime and criminal justice, including the seminal “Criminal Investigation: A Method of Reconstructing the Past”, along with his friend and colleague James W. Osterburg.
In Chicago, and Texas, and latterly at the University of New Haven in Connecticut (where I last visited him five years ago), Dick was responsible for training a whole generation of law enforcement officers from around the world. The corridors of the FBI and the CIA, and who knows what other agencies, are populated by the former pupils of Dr. Richard Ward, and I never met one that wasn’t an absolute devotee.
He was a man of extraordinary principle, character and charisma, and I along with many thousands of others will miss him sorely.
Dick was seventy-five years of age – the twelve year age gap between us always sticking in my mind because we were both born in the Year of the Rabbit. He is survived by his wife Michelle, whom he married while in China, and their young daughter Sophia He also has a son, Jon, and daughter, Jeanne, by a previous marriage who loved their father dearly. My thoughts are with them all.
As I look back on the year, it’s been quite a ride. 57,000 kilometres, 61 hotels, 35 flights, 9 countries and 2 major writing awards.
January to June
It began with a tour of the UK for the launch of “Entry Island”…
On my return from the UK, I spent a week doing signings and events in Paris bookstores before returning to Spain to resume work on my latest book “Runaway”.
In March I went back to Paris for the Paris Book Fair and followed that with a tour of bookstores in North West France.
More than 200 people turned out in Brest at the Dialogues bookstore. With the cafe/event space overflowing, they set up video screens to play the interview around the store. People were sitting on staircases and in any available space to watch.
They also made a short video interview with me at the hotel which you can view below…
In April I got back to the research for the new book, Runaway, which meant driving through the UK retracing the route I had taken in the 1960s from Glasgow, through the Lake District and Leeds to London.
After that, in May and June I was in self-imposed exile while I got down to the job of writing the book.
At the beginning of the summer the back page of Le Monde was devoted to a feature about me illustrated by a quite odd drawing!
July – Central Europe
The minute I finished writing the book in July I went back to the UK to the Harrogate Festival of Crime writing. I had been invited to do an event there and the last book in the Lewis Trilogy, “The Chessmen”, had been shortlisted for the Theakstons Old Peculier Crime Writing Award.
The day after I returned from Harrogate, it was back to Toulouse airport to start a 3-country tour of Central Europe, taking in the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Poland. We flew in and out of Prague and traveled by rail and car to Brno, Kosice, Ostrava and Wroclaw. We arrived in torrential rain and on the motorway from Prague to Brno, narrowly missed disaster when an entire wheel came flying off a truck in front of us. It bounced 50 feet into the air, then came crashing down and careered along the road towards us. Luckily the motorway was quiet, the driver swerved to avoid it and got us to the theatre where there was a full house waiting to see me!
For the public events, I had to read from The Blackhouse while a translation of what I was reading was projected on to a large screen behind me on the stage. The crowds were amazing, and I had no idea how well my books are doing in these countries! The Chessmen was at #2 during October in the Czech Republic.
While we were there, a film crew made a documentary about me and I had to indulge some quite peculiar requests. Here I am sitting in a children’s playground in a shopping mall.
And here… rowing a boat on a lake with the film crew.
I’ll be very interested to see the finished film!
August – Scotland
In August, after a trip to Luxembourg, I was invited back to the Edinburgh Book Festival, where I spoke at two events – a reading in the morning, then in the evening I was interviewed by Jenny Brown in front of a sellout audience.
Then it was off to the Isle of Lewis for the paperback launch of Entry Island. It was great catching up with so many old friends in Stornoway.
The launch tour continued as we made our way back via Inverness, Inverurie and Aberdeen to Edinburgh. We spent one night in Edinburgh before flying out to Toronto to start the US/Canada tour.
September – USA and Canada
The Blackhouse came out in paperback and The Lewis Man in hardback in September in the USA and Quercus decided I should undertake a tour of the US and Canada.
The reviews for the books have been excellent in North America, with “The Blackhouse” winning the Barry Award for Best Crime Novel in 2013; but it’s always hard to get the word out about new books in the USA, it’s such a big, diverse place. Quercus backed the tour up with ads like the one on the right in trade press and the New York Times and the rest was then down to me and word of mouth!
We flew into Toronto, then down to New York City before going coast to coast: Boston, Minneapolis, Houston, Denver, Salt Lake City, Sacramento, Los Angeles, Seattle, Winnipeg, and back to Toronto.
As well as the bookstore events, I did radio interviews and television. In Los Angeles, I was invited to appear on fellow Scot Craig Ferguson’s Network chat show, the Late Late Show – that was a quite crazy experience!
You can view the interview here…
After many long weeks on the road on a trip that took us from our home in France to the Edinburgh Festival, then all around the USA and back across Canada we flew back to Scotland. We had one last event to attend before we could get home to France – “Bloody Scotland”, Scotland’s own crime writing festival, held in the fantastic location of Stirling.
I was interviewed by my old friend Alanna Knight who recently received an MBE in recognition of her 60-year writing career!
Stirling’s Albert Halls was packed with around 500 people for the event.
The festival is always a convivial affair and this year, there was a Scotland Vs England football match. The teams, made up of crime writers, played with great energy.
They might have sedentary lifestyles, but they all had the killer instinct.
It was a beautiful sunny day, made even better by the fact that Scotland won: 14 – 1!
I had been asked to present the trophy (of course there was a trophy, it was a very serious match!) and had great pleasure in handing it over to the Scotland team, captained by Ian Rankin.
Later that night, I was the one on the receiving end of an award. Entry Island won the Deanston Scottish Crime Novel of the Year and I was given an engraved crystal decanter filled with delicious Deanston Single Malt.
When we arrived home, the ITV Crime Thriller Book Club was already underway on television. We got back in time to catch the episode featuring “Entry Island”. It was reviewed by Peter James, Kate Mosse, Sophie Hannah, Val McDermid and Mark Billingham. I was knocked out by the kind things they said about it!
The six books in the book club were in contention for the “Best Read” Dagger Award, at the ITV Crime Thriller Awards ceremony in London at the end of October. My publisher said I had to attend… another flight and hotel room! But the thing that bothered me most was that there was a dress code! Anyone who knows me knows I lean towards a “casual and comfortable” approach to my attire. I don’t even possess a suit.
I would normally wear the kilt to special occasions, but after weeks of touring and not being in control of my diet, my kilt was out of the question. I had to rush to our nearest big town, Brive La Gaillard, and throw myself at the mercy of a lovely shop assistant who took great delight in kitting me out from head to toe (including socks and scarf!) in fabulous French style.
Mt wife assured me it looked good, but as far as I was concerned, it was a scratchy, constricting, suffocating experience and I wasn’t sure I could stand a whole night of starched shirt, tie and buttoned-up waistcoat.
As I was one of the nominees, a limo arrived at our hotel to take us to the Grosvenor House Hotel where the dinner and awards ceremony was being televised. Red carpet and photographers greeted me and I was asked to stop and pose before we went through to the champagne reception and awards dinner.
The evening covered crime writing in the form of TV series and films, as well as books, and there were awards for productions and acting as well as writing so there were numerous awards. The wine was flowing, the hours were passing, no-one was allowed to leave as the event was being recorded for television.
The “Crime Thriller Club Best Read” award was the last one to be presented and to be honest my mind was focused on the moment when it would all be over and a) I could visit the toilets and b) I could get out of the tie and suit.
The competition was so strong, I had absolutely no expectations of winning. I was genuinely astonished when I heard my name being called out and the lights and cameras focused on me to follow me to the stage.
The award really belongs to everyone at Quercus publishing for their support and in particular my editor Jon Riley.
“Entry Island” was a risk, combining history, a love story and a crime novel. But Jon has backed and encouraged me to push the boundaries with my writing and it has paid off with “Entry Island” winning the Deanston Scottish Crime Novel of the Year, and the ITV Specsavers Crime Thriller Club Best Read of the Year.
And the rest…
But the year hasn’t all been about books.
In May, my friend from childhood Stephen Penn and I released the music album that we have been working on. It’s available from various music download sites if you search for “Penn and May” and “Runaway”, you can find it here on iTunes and on other sites such as Amazon.
Stephen has been creating brilliant videos to go with the songs on the album. You can see them on Youtube. He even managed to make the videos although we were miles apart by getting me to film myself against a green screen set up in my living room in France and sending them down to his home in Spain where he incorporated it into his productions.
Here is the video he made for the song “Runaway”…
In fact, our real-life teenage experiences of playing in a band and running away to London together inspired my latest book. Like the album, it is called Runaway and will be out in hardback in January 2015.
And you can pre-order the hardback edition of the book, “Runaway” which comes out in the UK on January 15th, Get your copy from The Book Depository and you will receive FREE shipping to anywhere in the world.
Just click here!
Forty-five years ago my best friend, Stephen, and I ran away to London. We had just turned 17. I had been expelled from school and taken an awful job at the DNS calculating interest in bank books. One early spring morning I couldn’t stand it any more and walked out.
I got a train up to my old school and found Stephen in the art department. I told him what I’d done and said I was going to run off to London. “Not without me,” he said. We were playing in a band at the time and when we told the other two in the group they decided to come with us. So we loaded up the group van with our equipment, left notes for our parents and drove off into the night.
We spent a week sleeping in the van in parks and backstreets, trying during the day to get an agency to take us on. Without luck. The only money we made was from busking. Of course, we ended up arguing and Stephen and I split from the other two and found ourselves sleeping on the floor of Euston Station.
We were wearing the same clothes we had run away in. I have a memory of people giving us a wide berth. In the end, filthy and starving, we made a reverse charge call to Stephen’s uncle in London. He came and picked us up and we were able to have a bath and put on clean clothes and get a decent meal. The uncle put us on a train to Glasgow where we were met by our respective fathers at Central Station. (It all came back to me very vividly last year when I had an unscheduled overnight in Glasgow and wandered around the city at first light on the Sunday morning, ending up in Central Station, which seemed still haunted by the memory.) Our fathers must have been wondering how to deal with the situation. In the event, they shook our hands and said, “Well done boys, we’re glad you had the courage to come back.”
This momentous event in our lives has been recorded for posterity in a song we have written and recorded for our album of the same name, “Runaway”, released for download this weekend. It is also providing the inspiration for the new book which I am currently writing. I have already clocked up 45,000 words as I blog this. And what is the working title of the book? Well, “Runaway” of course!
You can download the album here.
For the album cover, Stephen and I tried to replicate a photograph that was taken of us in a photobooth in Euston Station during that fateful trip. We spent our last half crown on it (never dreaming then, that it would end up all over something called the internet nearly half a century later). It’s an interesting comparison.
Stephen has designed the album cover that comes as a digital booklet with the downloading of the album. It has all the original photographs, plus the treated versions that we did for the cover. And here you can also catch a glimpse of Stephen and I with Jo, who did much of the backing singing and vocal harmony on the album, lending a touch of professionalism to the creaky voices of the old boys – we are not so much a Boy Band as an Old Boy Band.
And just for a bit of fun, here is one of the out-takes from our attempt to replicate the original photograph. I don’t know how many dozen pictures we took, but we almost invariably broke down in floods of laughter. How we ever managed to get one with straight faces I will never know.
And here is the video Stephen made for the title track from the album – Runaway:
I am not often moved to blog about things I read in the tabloid press, but I was incensed by this ignorant, poorly researched piece of trash “journalism” perpetrated by a pompous columnist called Richard Godwin in a rag called the London Evening Standard.
It was a wholly unjustified and vitriolic attack on the sport of curling – a game invented by Scots in the middle-ages (and not by some Swiss psychiatrist as inaccurately claimed by Godwin in his spiteful column). In his fury that curling should receive funding while British basketball is having its cut, he resorts to the childish and offensive, calling curlers “numpties” and describing the game as “somewhere between the Eurovision Song Contest and Tiddlywinks”, and “a symptom of everything wrong with Britain”.
Those who are cutting funding to basketball, he says, are ignoring the widespread popularity of that game at grass roots level.
If he had the least idea what curling was about, he would know that it is played week-in, week-out through the winter by thousands of curlers in dozens of leagues all over Scotland, and elsewhere in the UK. I should know, I was one of them for many years. It is a testing and skilful game, that requires intelligent strategy, technique, fitness and strength. It is a wonderfully social game that involves people of all ages, from children through to the very elderly (who can adapt their game to suit personal physical abilities). It develops competitive spirit, but also social and family skills – it is a game often played by whole families. And if Godwin had ever spent two hours on a curling rink he would know just how physically demanding it is – encouraging fitness and health in all. But, then, he probably never steps beyond the door of his local London wine bar.
However, here’s a piece of information that Godwin might have uncovered had he not been so journalistically challenged and blinded by his own ignorant prejudice:
In the last 100 years, Britain has won two gold medals in Olympic Curling. British basketball has won none. I am not suggesting that as a reason for de-funding British basketball, but it places Godwin’s ludicrous logic in its proper perspective.
His column was not only ill-informed and hopelessly prejudiced, but it was deeply offensive to the many thousands of people who play the game at all levels, and nothing short of insulting to the Scots who comprise the men’s and women’s British Olympic curling teams and who sacrifice their time and their social lives, just like any other athletes, to perform the best they can for Britain.
They deserve better than weasel words from Richard Godwin and the London Evening Standard.
I’d like to wish you all a wonderful festive season, and a very happy, healthy and prosperous 2014!
2013 saw the trilogy go from strength to strength in the UK and mainland Europe, with an amazing breakthrough in the USA where The Blackhouse was only recently published.
But before I tell you about the highlights of the year for me, I have some exciting news about my next book Entry Island. For those of you who don’t know, Entry Island is set in part on the Isle of Lewis and in part on the Magdalen Islands of Quebec. It was scheduled for release in early January 2014, but…
ENTRY ISLAND RELEASED EARLY
for Kindle UK, click here…
and readers from anywhere in the world can get FREE worldwide delivery of the hardback edition with 15% off the price from The Book Depository.
To buy Entry Island, or any other books from The Book Depository, click here
Of course it’s also available from bookstores such as WH Smiths and Waterstones, or in supermarkets like Tesco, or from your favourite independent bookstores. I’ve heard that books are already appearing in the shops in advance of Boxing Day.
UK and Paris Tour, signings and talks,
Also I’ll be coming to venues in the UK and Paris to talk about Entry Island. The full list of dates and venues can be found at the end of this post.
HIGHLIGHTS OF 2013
It’s been an extraordinary year which began with The Chessmen spending almost 6 months in the UK hardback best seller charts. There were some wonderful reviews across the board in the UK and The Independent declared that The Chessmen “…completes one of the best-regarded crime series of recent years”.
The summer brought a flurry of nominations for writing awards on both sides of the Altantic. The Lewis Man was in the final shortlist for the Theakston Old Peculier Crime Novel of the Year, and The Blackhouse was shortlisted for a Macavity Award and a Barry Award in the USA.
In September I went to Albany, New York for the Bouchercon Crime Writing conference and was absolutely delighted when George Easter of Deadly Pleasures Magazine announced that The Blackhouse was the winner of the Barry Award for the Crime Novel of the Year in the US.
Hebrides, the photo companion to The Lewis Trilogy came out in October in the UK and according to my E-mail In Box, David Wilson’s beautiful photographs will be turning up in more than a few Christmas stockings this year (I hope I haven’t spoiled the surprise for anyone!)
In the summer, I travelled to Lewis with a French film crew to make a documentary about The Lewis Trilogy which will be broadcast in France in January 2014.
I was back on the island a month later when BBC Radio Scotland took me to the Hebrides to record – at locations that appear in The Blackhouse – a special one-hour “Out Of Doors” programme. It was a sensitive and – at times – emotional exploration of the story of the book and my personal relationship and connections with the Outer Hebrides. It was broadcast in the Autumn but is being repeated on Radio Scotland in January. You can hear it broadcast on the internet from anywhere in the world, or you can listen from my website on the ”Latest News” page.
Also, by following the above link to my Latest News page, you’ll find video of me talking about Entry Island and some audio book clips of excerpts from the book to give a taste of it.
Before I go, here are my dates in the UK and Paris, I hope you’ll come along and see me if you can…
ENTRY ISLAND TOUR 2014
EVENTS IN UK
Saturday 11th January
Event in association with Waterstones, Aberdeen
Venue: MacRobert Lecture Theatre, MacRobert Building, Kings Street, University of Aberdeen
Tickets: £5/£4 concessions
Tel for tickets: 01224 592 440
Mon 13th January
Event with Waterstone’s, Inverness
Venue: Inverness Town House. Inverness Town House, Inverness, IV2 4SF
Interviewer: Robert Taylor, Editor of Inverness Courier
Tel for Tickets: 01463 233500
Tues 14th January
Informal signing: Waterstone’s, Sauchiehall St, Glasgow
Tues 14th January
12.30 – 2.00pm
Formal signing: WH SMITHS, 53 – 55 Argyle St, Glasgow G2 8AH
Contact: Brian McIntyre, 0141 204 0636
Tues 14th January
7.00pm – 8.30pm
Event with Waterstones, 38 Avenue Centre, Newton Mearns, G77 6EY
Venue: Primavera Bistro, Newton Mearns
Tickets: free (but need to book)
Tel: 0141 6163933
Wed 15th January
Event with Blackwells, 53 – 62 Southbridge, Edinburgh EH1 1YS
Venue: The Roxy Theatre, 2 Roxburgh Place, EH8 9SU
Tel: 0131 622 8222
Thurs 16th January
Informal signing: Waterstone’s, Ocean Terminal, Edinburgh
Thurs 16th January
12.30pm – 1.30pm
Formal signing: Waterstone’s George St, Edinburgh
Tel: 0843 290 8309 to reserve a signed copy
Thurs 16th January
In association with Waterstone’s, 35 Commercial Street, Dundee DD1 3DG
Venue: Steps Theatre, The Wellgate, Dundee, DD1 1DB
Interviewer: Helen Brown, Dundee Courier
Tickets: free but booking essential
Tel for tickets: 01382 200322
Tues 21st January
Waterstones’ Piccadilly, London
Tel: 020 78512400
EVENTS IN PARIS
Wednesday 22 January 2014
Venue: WH Smith,
Address: 248 Rue de Rivoli, 75001 Paris
RSVP to email@example.com
Thursday 23 January 2014
Venue: Librairie L’Écailler
Address: 101 Rue du Théâtre, 75015 Paris, France
Phone: 01 45 75 30 72
Friday 24 January 2014
Venue: Librairie Maruani
Address: 171 Boulevard Vincent Auriol, 75013 Paris, France
Phone: 01 45 85 85 70
Saturday 25 January 2014
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With my new novel, Entry Island, due out on Kindle tomorrow, I thought I would share the story behind it with my readers.
My decision to write Entry Island stemmed from my interest in the Highland Clearances.
Like many of my generation I did not become aware of the history of The Clearances until the years after I had left full-time education. I took Higher history at school, but this was not a subject on the syllabus. Why, is still a mystery to me, since it is one of the most shameful periods in recent British social history. It was first drawn to my attention by the 1970s John McGrath play, “The Cheviot, The Stag and the Black, Black Oil”.
The Clearances was a phenomenon that took place in several waves in the Highlands and Islands of Scotland over the course of around 100 years during the 18th and 19th centuries. It followed on from the defeat of the Jacobites (who wanted to restore the Stewarts to the British throne) at Culloden in 1746. Most of those who fought in the Jacobite rebellion were Highland crofters and farmers called to arms by their clan chiefs in support of Bonnie Prince Charlie. Since a clan chief in those days was both benefactor and landlord, the Highlanders, who were mostly Gaelic speakers, had no choice but to do as they were told. They were, essentially, canon-fodder.
But the British government, determined to dismantle the clan system and exact retribution, banned all things Highland – the playing of the bagpipes, the wearing of the kilt, the carrying of arms – and a lengthy and institutionalised persecution against Gaelic speakers was instigated (someone speaking Gaelic in a court of law was deemed not to have spoken). In the immediate aftermath of Culloden, a regiment comprising prisoners from English prisons was set loose in the Highlands, slaughtering Gaelic speakers and their families.
Many clan chiefs were disposessed of their land and a new generation of landowner took over the vast Highland estates they vacated. The crofters, whose ancestors had worked the land for centuries, were seen as a burden. They made no money from the land, which provided subsistence only, and were unable to pay rent. So, with financial incentives from the government, this new breed of landowner systematically began to replace people with sheep, which were regarded as a more economically viable use of the land.
Hundreds of thousands of people were forcibly removed from their homes, which were often set alight to prevent them returning. Many were forced to the coastal fringes where there were no settlements, and where without the requisite fishing talents or boats, they lived and died in dire poverty. Others were forced, sometimes in chains, aboard boats bound for the New World. They had no possessions and no money, and faced the most appalling conditions as human ballast aboard sailing ships designed to carry cargo, not people. By the mid to late 19th century the British government had legislated to lay down minimum conditions aboard the “slavers” – ships carrying slaves from Africa to America. But these conditions did not apply to the emigrants forced to sail the Atlantic during The Clearances. Many of them did not survive the voyages.
Fuelled by the injustice of The Clearances, and the knowledge that no one had really tackled the subject in fiction, I decided to make this the focus of the book that would follow The Lewis Trilogy. But I didn’t want to write a historical novel, and as a crime writer I obviously had to find a way of bringing the criminal, the contemporary and the historical, all together in one story.
I knew that there had been some particularly brutal land clearances in the Hebrides, and since this was on my patch, so to speak, I decided to set the historical element of the story on the Isle of Lewis and Harris, creating a fictitious estate and township that would serve as a typical example of some of the more violent clearances. For this I drew specifically on real events that took place on Barra, the west coast of Harris, and the village of Solas in North Uist.
For the contemporary element of the story, I turned towards Canada where many Highlanders ended up. I had initially intended to use Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island as the centres of the contemporary crime story. But two coincidences changed my mind.
Quite by chance I received an email from a reader of the Lewis Trilogy. Her name was Marilyn Savage, and she was a presbyterian minister in Canada who had grown up in the Scottish communities in the Eastern Townships of Quebec. After several exchanges by email, it became clear to me that this is where my story should take place.
But specifically, for my tale, I required an island setting. Here the second coincidence came into play. My neighbour in France is a Quebecois, who grew up in the Magdalen Islands (les îles de la Madeleine) in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. I had seen photographs of the islands and been struck by the similarity to the Hebrides, and when further research revealed the presence of large communities of “cleared” Hebrideans in the Canadian province, that became the natural setting for the book.
The discovery that an island in the St. Lawrence River, just downstream from Quebec City, had been used as a quarantine station for arriving emigrants, brought the final piece of the story into play. And I set off for Quebec to do my research.
After research sessions at the Sûreté de Police in Montreal, the Eastern Townships of Quebec (now known as the Cantons de l’est) were my next port of call. I was fortunate to arrive at the most beautiful time of year, when the leaves in the forests that would have been so unfamiliar to arriving Hebrideans were turning the most extraordinary colours. There, with Marilyn Savage, her mother and daughters as my sherpas, I visited towns and villages established by Hebrideans cleared off their land. There is actually a town called Stornoway. Another called Tolsta – which is the name of the village on the Isle of Lewis from which Marilyn Savage’s ancestors hailed. Another settlement describes itself as the Hebridean village of Gould. A tour of the cemeteries of these townships was a sobering and emotional experience. For here, buried in the ground thousands of miles from their homes, lay Macleods, and Macritchies and Macdonalds, and many others forced to leave their villages by unscrupulous landlords. People who had survived the voyage by sea and somehow endured to establish these communities.
I went to the homes of some of their descendants and met some very elderly ladies in their late eighties and nineties who still speak Gaelic. They spoke of their pride in their roots, and in the fortitude of their ancestors who had survived and thrived against all the odds.
I flew out to the Magdalen Islands, which are situated in the middle of the Gulf of St. Lawrence and totally isolated from the North American mainland. These islands, which comprise part of the province of Quebec, are French speaking, and largely populated by ancestors of the Acadians forced out of Canada by the British. One tiny island, however, is resolutely English-speaking. It is called Entry Island, and many of its inhabitants are of Scots descent. In fact, most of the English speakers in the Magdalen islands (about 5 percent of the population) are descended from emigrants who were shipwrecked on their way to Quebec City – for the islands stand in the middle of the sea route to the mouth of the St. Lawrence River, and without a lighthouse were the cause of hundreds of shipwrecks over many years.
I then visited the quarantine island of Grosse Île, which has been preserved as a museum since its final closure in 1937. It is an island still haunted by the thousands who died there in long sheds known as Lazarettos, in the hospital where desperate staff worked in appalling conditions to try to save the lives of emigrants suffering from the diseases they had brought with them aboard their ships, and in the boats that were forced to anchor in the bay and fly the yellow quarantine flag.
My central character, Sime (a corruption of Sim, the Gaelic for Simon, which is pronounced “Sheem”) Mackenzie, is a homicide detective with the Sûreté in Montreal. His family, too, 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. He is, therefore, fluently bilingual – which is why he is chosen to travel with the French-speaking investigation team to Entry Island when a brutal murder is committed there.
When Sime arrives, it is only to discover that the wife of the victim, and prime suspect in his murder, is unaccountably familiar to him, even although they have never met…
When I was 18 years old I made my first serious attempt to write a novel. I had written stories throughout most of my teenage years, including a teenage fantasy about the group I played in called “The Aristokrats”. The book was entitled “The Aristokrats in Spain”, and it ran to around 50,000 words. If nothing else, it taught me that I could write at length, but it could never have been described as serious.
“Portrait” was different. It was a story of youthful love, disillusion and eventual tragedy. I was cutting my real writer’s teeth. And it was my first step on a long and difficult road that would be full of frustration and rejection. It was short, only about 25,000 words – not a commercially viable length – so my expectations were not high. All the same, I was excited when a letter from Collins Publishers finally dropped through the letterbox.
It was dated January 25th, 1971, which seemed auspicious since it was also the birthday of the great Scottish Bard, Rabbie Burns.
But, of course, it was a rejection.
And although it might seem strange to say that I was uplifted, even inspired by this letter, that is exactly how I felt. It was sent to me by an editor called Philip Ziegler, and his words of praise and encouragement are perhaps the only things that sustained me through all the difficult years that lay ahead.
While explaining that the book was neither long enough, nor sufficiently good in construction or style, he went on to write, “But we do like it. It has a direct and emphatic narrative style and has an oddly memorable – even idyllic flavour about it. We feel you ought to go on writing, and would like to see anything you write in future – which may not sound very much, but is, I can assure you, a great deal more than we say to 95% of the people who send in their typescripts!”
I sometimes wonder where I would be today if Philip Ziegler had not taken the time and trouble and care to reply to me with such thoughtful words. And I wonder, too, how many other writers might simply have given up because no one took the time to offer similar encouragement.
I have guarded that letter carefully all my life, and today some instinct led me to it in a box of archives in the attic. I have scanned it, and you can read the letter in full by simply clicking on it.
But the story doesn’t end there. Because 42 years later, Philip Ziegler is still going strong, and still being published himself. His latest book, “Olivier”, is the definitive biography of the actor Lawrence Olivier, and is published by Quercus who also publish my best-selling Lewis Trilogy.
So nearly half a century later, I find myself on the same list, with the same publisher as the man who I have always considered to be my first and most important mentor.
My heartfelt thanks to Philip Ziegler.
Update: read about my meeting with Philip Ziegler here.
I’ve just returned from the Bouchercon crime convention in Albany NY, USA, where George Easter of Deadly Pleasures magazine presented me with the Barry Award for Best Mystery Novel for “The Blackhouse”.
In previous years, there were separate awards for US and UK writers, but this is the first year that the awards were combined and books from both sides of the Atlantic were pitted against one another. It made winning the prize all the more special to know that “The Blackhouse” had been up against all the American big guns of this year, such as the phenomenal best seller “Gone Girl” by Gillian Flynn!
It was also special for me because, although “The Blackhouse” has won several major literature awards in France, where it was first published, this is the first prize for the English language version of the book.
It’s hard to believe, looking back, that this was the same book that was was turned down by every major publisher in the UK. I had set it aside and gone on to write other books, really believing “The Blackhouse” to be a lost cause.
I owe a special debt of gratitude to my French publisher, Danielle Dastugue of Le Rouergue, who saved the book from oblivion. Everything changed with one chance conversation we had when I mentioned “The Blackhouse” to her. She asked to read it, loved it and bought world rights. She had it translated into French and took the Frankfurt book fair by storm, with publishers from all over Europe bidding for the rights.
And it was the French version that was read by the book scout for award-winning young publishing house Quercus – a UK publisher that had not even existed when the book was first offered to British publishers. They immediately stepped in to buy the English language rights and were the ones to commission a further two books to create what has become known as The Lewis Trilogy.
The rest is now history. Quercus’ belief in the book was endorsed by the Richard and Judy Book Club who picked it for their Autumn 2011 selection. UK readers shared their enthusiasm, voting it their “Best Read” and turning the book into a major best-seller.
“The Blackhouse” was first published in the USA at the end of 2012. The paperback will be published there in Spring of 2014 by Quercus Inc., with “The Lewis Man” coming out in hard cover in October 2014.
Here is a video of me at the awards ceremony, receiving the Barry Award from George Easter. The video might not be very clear, but the audio quality is good enough to hear my speech.
And in other news, this week saw the publication in the UK of “Hebrides” the photo companion to the Lewis Trilogy. More than 200 beautiful pictures by photographer David Wilson illustrate the locations from the trilogy, alongside a text that I have written charting the history of the islands and my personal relationship with them.
The summer has arrived with a flurry of award nominations for The Lewis Trilogy.
The trilogy has already won several awards in France where it was first published.
Now nominations are arriving for major book awards in the UK and USA.
- THEAKSTONS OLD PECULIER CRIME NOVEL OF THE YEAR (UK)
The Lewis Man shortlisted
- BARRY AWARD – Best Crime Novel (USA)
The Blackhouse – Subscribers and readers of Deadly Pleasures Magazine can vote. Find out more, here
- MACAVITY AWARDS – Best Mystery Novel (USA)
The Blackhouse – Subscribers and readers of Mystery Readers Journal can vote. Find out more, here
THE BLACKHOUSE shortlisted for a Barry Award
THE BLACKHOUSE has been shortlisted in the category of Best Crime Novel in the BARRY AWARDS run by Deadly Pleasures magazine. All subscribers and readers of Deadly Pleasures Mystery Magazine are eligible to vote. Readers who have subscribed to the magazine, here, may vote by email (firstname.lastname@example.org) or by sending your votes to P.O. Box 997, Bountiful, UT 84011.
The winners will be announced September 19, 2013 at the Opening Ceremonies of Bouchercon 2013 in Albany, New York
THE BLACKHOUSE shortlisted for a Macavity Award
THE BLACKHOUSE has been shortlisted for a Best Mystery Novel in the Macavity Awards. This award is nominated by and voted on by members and supporters of Mystery Readers International, as well as subscribers to Mystery Readers Journal. Readers can subscribe here. Winners will be announced at Bouchercon, the World Mystery Convention, in September, in Albany this year. The Macavity Award is named for the “mystery cat” of T.S. Eliot (Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats).
In other news…
THE CHESSMEN spent almost six months in the UK hardback bestsellers chart after publication in January this year.
THE ENZO FILES are now available in new e-books editions from Quercus. EXTRAORDINARY PEOPLE, THE CRITIC, BLACKLIGHT BLUE and FREEZE FRAME (with BLOWBACK coming soon). Find out more here
HEBRIDES will be available in September 2013.
HEBRIDES is a photo companion book for the Lewis Trilogy, containing more than 200 photographs of locations in the Outer Hebrides of Scotland described in the books. The photographs were taken by local photographer David Wilson, and are accompanied by Peter May’s story of the islands’ history and his own history with the islands, describing the inspiration behind the Lewis Trilogy.
The end of another year. Another book published. Another book written, well, almost. I expect to finish it within the next ten days before I travel to the UK for the launch of The Chessmen, but more of that later. First a review of the last year….
What were the highlights of 2012?
At the end of the year, The Lewis Man was named by UK newspaper The Independent as one of their “Books of the Year” for 2012. The Lewis Trilogy was also described in the paper as:
“one of the best-regarded crime series of recent years”.
In 2012, The Blackhouse was published in the USA by Quercus’ partners, Silver Oak, and was received very well.
New York Times reviewer, Marilyn Stasio said:
“Peter May is a writer I’d follow to the ends of the earth”
Publishers Weekly gave it a starred review, calling it:
“brilliant first in a trilogy”
Library Journal also gave it a starred review, describing it as:
“mesmerizing”‘, “breathtaking”, “astonishing”.
and they have just named The Blackhouse one of “The Best Books of 2012” in the USA.
The Blackhouse was named one of “The Best Books of 2012” in the USA by January Magazine, too.
Back in Europe, The Lewis Man was up for several awards during 2012.
In May, I made the final shortlist for the UK Crime Writers’ Association’s “Dagger in the Library” a prize awarded by British librarians.
In the Spring, the French version of The Lewis Man was selected for the French daily newspaper Le Télégramme’s Grand Prix des Lecteurs. There were 12 nominees and all the authors were called on to give talks in book shops and libraries and to be interviewed on television – all of this in French, naturally!
The judging process took place over several months and the vote was then taken by readers of the newspaper who had registered and read the 12 books. I was amazed and delighted when The Lewis Man was declared the winner and I received the 10,000 Euro prize at the televised award ceremony.
In June, at Le Havre’s Ancres Noires Crime Writing Festival, The Lewis Man won the Prix des Lecteurs. This is another prize judged by readers. It is run and adjudicated by librarians in the North West of France.I was the first author to win this prize twice – having won it previously for The Blackhouse.
The Lewis Man was shortlisted for the first Scottish Crime Book of the Year, at the inaugural “Bloody Scotland” Crime Writing Festival in Stirling in September – a great festival, well-run, superb location, convivial – hope it’s the first of many!
In October, at one of my favourite festivals, the Cognac festival of Crime Writing I won the Prix Polar International by a unanimous vote of the judges (which is apparently very unusual). The best thing about this award? The crystal decanter of 1795 Baron Otard Extra Cognac!
As for 2013…
The Chessmen was released on Kindle UK early, and the past couple of weeks have seen The Blackhouse, The Lewis Man, and The Chessmen all regularly sitting in the Top Twenty of the Amazon Kindle UK Mystery and Thriller lists.
The Chessmen‘s hardback release date in bookstores was 3rd January and I’ll be flying to the UK for 11 events to celebrate the launch at bookstores and other venues mainly in Scotland, and focusing on a Hebridean tour!
CHESSMEN LAUNCH TOUR
- Newcastle, Corrbridge Forum Books, Tea and Tipple Cafe 14th Jan 7pm
- St Boswells, Mainstreet Trading 15th Jan, 12 noon
- Newton Mearns, Waterstones, Primavera Bistro 15th Jan 7pm
- Edinburgh, Blackwells, 53-59 South Bridge16th Jan 6.30pm
- Dundee, Steps Theatre, 17th Jan 7pm
- Lochmaddy North Uist, Taigh Chearsabhagh Arts Centre 19th Jan 2pm
- Lochboisdale, South Uist, Lochboisdae Hotel 21st Jan 7pm
- Tarbert, Harris, Tarbert Community Library, 22nd Jan 7pm
- Stornoway, Lewis, Woodlands Centre, 23rd Jan 7.30pm
- Ness, Lewis, Historical Society, 24th Jan 7.30pm
- Inverness, Waterstones 25th Jan 4pm (signing only)
THERE MIGHT BE LIMIT ON SEATS AVAILABLE, SO
PLEASE CHECK WITH INDIVIDUAL VENUES FOR
FULL DETAILS ABOUT WHETHER BOOKING IS NECESSARY
PLEASE CHECK WITH INDIVIDUAL VENUES FOR
FULL DETAILS ABOUT WHETHER BOOKING IS NECESSARY
I have to go now, to ensure that I meet the deadline to finish writing my next book before the tour.
What is it about?
Well, in spite of daily e-mails imploring me to continue with Fin’s story, I can tell you there is definitely NOT going to be a fourth book in The Lewis Trilogy. I can also divulge that the Isle of Lewis does appear in the new book. But you’ll have to wait a while to find out any more!
During my 2005 US book tour to promote “The Firemaker”, I visited 15 independent mystery bookstores. This year just 6 of them are still in business.
The latest to fall by the wayside is Partners & Crime in New York City. P&C has just announced it is to close its doors, following in the fatal footsteps of another NYC independent, Murder Ink.
Mysteries To Die For in Thousand Oaks, California, closed its doors for the last time last week, while further north in the same State San Mateo’s independent Mystery bookstore, M is for Mystery, closed earlier this year.
Since my last book tour of the US in 2010, the Los Angeles Mystery Bookstore in Westwood has gone under, as has Murder by the Book in Denver.
The San Francisco Mystery Book Store, Kate’s Mystery Books, Cambridge, MA, and High Crimes in Boulder, Colorado, had all closed before then, although High Crimes was still operating an internet service and hosting visiting author events.
This summer Mystery Lovers bookstore in Oakmont, Pittsburgh, PA, changes hands, and one can only wish the new owners the best of luck in the current economic climate.
It’s easy to wax lyrical about the service that the enthusiasts who ran these stores provided for readers by offering good advice and astute recommendations, but speaking from personal experience the hosting they provided for authors will be difficult to replace.
Events run at independent bookstores are an absolute pleasure. Talks and Q&A sessions take place in an intimate environment, with chairs crammed into small spaces between canyons of books. The bookstore owners know their customers and encourage them to come along to listen to and meet authors who are new to them. Fans get the chance to mingle and talk with authors and other readers. And after the fans have gone home, the author stays on at the bookstore to sign piles of books that the owner then goes on to hand-sell, marketing via newsletters to readers further afield, or who couldn’t come along that night.
Through this countrywide network, a writer who was unknown to American readers, could get on the road and let people know about his work.
I traversed the US, east to west, north to south, and in five years built up a loyal fan base and readership thanks to the work of those independent mystery bookstore owners. Word-of-mouth recommendations are by far the most effective way of reaching new readers. However, internet shopping is taking its toll, and I feel that I am now witnessing the end of an era.
In times of financial crisis, who can blame people for wanting to get their books delivered to them more cheaply. But as controversy rages elsewhere on the net about fake online reviews and manipulation of star ratings by sock puppets, the real loss to all of us, readers and writers alike, is the demise of those passionate booksellers – people you could put a real name and a friendly face to – who would tell you what books they loved, and why they loved them, and who would chat in person with you, the reader, and make recommendations based on your tastes. Lovely people. People you could trust. I’ll miss them.
If you still have an independent bookstore nearby, you owe it to yourself to go out and support it.
Well, while awaiting the release of The Chess Men, the final book in The Lewis Trilogy – in September in France and next January in the UK, I was keeping my head down and getting to work on a new idea. However, if I thought I was going to have some quiet time to research and think, I was wrong. The last couple of weeks have been – well, see for yourself…
Le Télégramme Newspaper Readers’ Prize
The first thing to interrupt my thinking time was the news that The French edition of The Lewis Man (L’Homme de Lewis) had won the Prix des Lecteurs du Télégramme!
I had been shortlisted for this prize earlier in the year, so I knew that I was one of six authors whose books would be read and voted on by the readers of France’s Le Télégramme newspaper. Along with the shortlisting came a requirement to make bookstores appearances and give talks, as well as do video interviews for French television and the internet sites of the newspaper and bookstores. The shortlisted books were available in bookstores and libraries and over a period of months, readers of the Télégramme newspaper were required to register in order to participate and vote for their favourite. Readers’ prizes like this are special because there are no politics involved; it’s a simple case of readers (the most important people in writers’ lives) reading the books and saying which one had pleased them the most.
Winning the prize meant returning to Brest with a 1500 kilometre round trip for another round of nerve-wracking TV and newspaper interviews all in French, along with the award ceremony, dinner, and the prize itself – a cheque for 10,000 Euros.
You can read about it here:
Movie of The Killing Room
While I was in Brest, the Cannes Film Festival was taking place and I wasn’t able to be there for the official announcement that a deal had finally been confirmed to make The Killing Room – the third of my China Thrillers – into a movie. Alexis Dantec and Fred Bellaiche’s production company, French Connection, optioned the rights to The Killing Room two years ago, but getting past the Chinese censors was posing a problem for them. The answer proved to be an unusual one: the company has decided to transpose the novel’s original setting of Shanghai and Beijing to Seoul, Li Yan will become a Korean cop and Margaret Campbell will become a French pathologist!
For more about the crazy world of movie-making, here is the article announcing the project:
Shortlisted for Dagger in the Library Award
The day after I won the Télégramme prize, I received the fantastic news that I have been shortlisted for the British Crime Writers’ Association’s “Dagger in the Library” Award. This prize is decided by a judging panel of librarians, and it is awarded not for one particular book, but instead for a writer’s body of work, and for writers who have built up a following with library readers but who have not yet made a big breakthrough.
Here’s how the judges described me: “An accomplished author, at the height of his powers with this latest trilogy. He manages to vary his settings while always creating completely believable characters.” Read more about “The Dagger in the Library” and the shortlist here:
What will follow the Lewis Trilogy?
With all of these distractions it has been hard to focus. But an idea has been running around in my mind for a few months and I finally harnessed it and pulled together my first thoughts to present to my editor at Quercus. After an anxious wait while he considered it, he came back to me with good news. He loves it! And I hope you will too, but you’ll have to wait for a while to find out more about it. I have to develop the story and the characters, research it, write it, then it has to go through the whole publishing process, and finally it will reach you in 2014!
But first you have to find out how the Lewis Trilogy ends. The final book, The Chess Men, will be out in the UK in January 2013, and if you haven’t already downloaded the excerpt to whet your appetite, then you can find it here:
I will be visiting…
Inverness on 25th July, for the Inverness Festival
Edinburgh, 16th – 18th August for the Edinburgh Book Festival, for an event at Peppers Theatre 6.45pm 16th August
Stirling on 13th September for “Off The Page” festival hosted by Stirling’s libraries.
and staying in Stirling for the “Bloody Scotland” crime writing festival 14th – 16th September, appearing at this event: http://www.bloodyscotland.com/island-crime/
It’s been a helluva year!
Most of you who follow my blogs will know something of the publication history of “The Blackhouse” – how it was rejected by all the major publishing houses in the UK before being snapped up by my French publisher, Le Rouergue. They then sold it all around Europe and brokered a three-book deal with London publishing house, Quercus, UK publisher of the year in 2011.
Well, “The Blackhouse” was finally published in the UK in February last year, and went straight into the top twenty hardback bestsellers chart at No.16.
Meantime, back in France, the book (in it’s French incarnation, “L’île des chasseurs d’oiseaux”) had already won the readers’ prize at the prestigious Le Havre crime writing festival, but was then, to my delight, shortlisted for one of the biggest readers’ prizes in the world – the Prix Cezam. Ten books from around Europe are selected for the Cezam shortlist, then read and voted on by more than 3,500 readers in adjudicated groups all over France.
That nomination obliged me to travel widely around the country talking to these groups about the book, and about my writing in general – during which time I was also busy writing the third book in what is now called “The Lewis Trilogy” (“The Blackhouse” being the first). In hotel rooms and trains I spent countless hours tapping away on my laptop, criss-crossing France – from Brittany to Paris, from Lyon to Nantes.
I also spent the Spring in training for a research trip in June to the mountains of south-west Lewis. This entailed getting sturdy walking boots a waterproof jacket, a woolly hat and walking stick, and tramping up hill and down dale to get myself fit.
In the event, nothing could prepare me for the appalling climatic conditions that battered me on my arrival on the island. Up in the mountains winds were gusting to a 100 kph, spitting rain and stinging hail into my face. During a week of bruising weather, I hiked through some of the most rugged, desolate and inaccessible wilderness in Scotland.
Returning to France, satisfied but exhausted, I learned that “The Blackhouse” had been selected as one of eight books for the Richard & Judy Autumn Book Club – which is now sponsored by WH Smith, the biggest bookseller in Britain, with more than 1000 retail outlets.
So at the end of August I headed off to London to record an interview with Richard and Judy to coincide with the paperback publication of “The Blackhouse” and the announcement of the autumn list.
The book shot straight into the top ten. In all, it spent nearly three months in the top thirty, and sold more than 100,000 copies. And because it turned out to be the bestselling book of the R&J autumn selection, it received its own extended display in all WH Smith stores after Christmas and is still selling like hotcakes.
As if all this wasn’t heady enough, I learned in September that I had won the Prix Cezam! Not just the national prize, but 21 out of the 25 regional prizes as well. This obliged me to attend the national prize-giving in Strasbourg in mid-October, before embarking on a two month tour of France to collect the regional awards.
Then came the news to top it all off. The Lewis Trilogy had been bought by Silver Oak, the Quercus imprint of Sterling, one of the biggest publishing houses in America. “The Blackhouse” will make its first US appearance in September, with an initial hardback print run of more than 50,000 copies.
As I sit here writing this, the second book in the trilogy, “The Lewis Man”, has just been published. Quercus tell me that advance sales already guarantee its status as a bestseller, and if the first reviews are anything to go by, it looks set to surpass the success of its predecessor.
To promote the publication, Quercus commissioned a glossy book trailer from big name music video producers, The Forest of Black, and to be honest I think it is one of the best book trailers I have seen.
Even as I stop to draw breath, I have learned that “The Lewis Man” (already out in France under the title “L’homme de Lewis”) has been shortlisted for a literary prize awarded by the readers of the French daily newspaper, Le Télégramme. And so it all begins again!
But what of the writing. It’s easy to forget amid this maelstrom that, in the end, the writing is what it’s all about. Well, I have completed the third book in the trilogy, “The Chess Men”, and just signed a new three-book contract.
However, I have to confess to a deep melancholy.
My sadness comes from saying goodbye to the characters I have lived with 24/7 during these last few years. Fin and Marsaili, Angel and Calum. Donald, Tormud, Ceit, and others whom you have yet to meet. They have been with me through all the ups and the downs, from the despair of rejection to the elation of success. Characters whose lives I have lived with them, and sometimes for them. People as real to me as family and friends. And yet, as I wrote the final few words of the third book, I knew that I would never see them again.
The sense of loss is almost as great as the grief you experience with the death of a loved one, or the loss of a lover. I have to admit to sitting at my computer weeping unashamedly as I typed the last lines of the final chapter.
I guess the only consolation is that new friends await me. I have no idea yet who they are, but I know that together we have a roller-coaster few years ahead of us.
The Blackhouse is the book that British publishers rejected en masse 6 years ago. Today it is at No.7 in the bestselling UK paperback chart – its 7th week in the Top Twenty. And yesterday it won one of the most prestigious literary prizes in France.
The Prix Litteraire Cezam Inter-CE, is notable for having one of the largest juries in the world of literary prizes. Throughout the year more than 3500 jurors meet in 330 reading groups across France to read, consider and discuss a shortlist of ten books from around Europe before voting using a points system. The votes are collected, verified and counted by the librarians and bookstore owners responsible for leading the groups.
The prize is in two parts, regional and national. Votes are counted first at a local level with prize winners being declared in each of 26 regions; then the points are amassed across France to calculate the winner of the National Award. “L’île des chasseurs d’oiseaux”, which is the French translation of “The Blackhouse”, won 21 out of the 26 regional prizes, making it the runaway national winner.
I picked up the national award in Strasbourg yesterday in the amphitheatre of the Faculty of Medicine, in front of an audience of 250 – participants in the vote who had come from all corners of France without knowing who the winner was.
On an enormous screen behind the stage, the ten nominated books were counted down one by one, according to their place in the vote, until only two remained. The winning book was then heralded by the arrival of a piper who entered through a door at the back of the amphitheatre. I was ushered on to the stage to the accompaniment of Scotland the Brave, proudly sporting my kilt, to receive a cheque, a hand-crafted fountain pen, bottles of wine, and a huge Alsation crockpot.
Following my thank-you speech, I was interviewed in front of the audience for an hour by Strasbourg bookstore owner, Gilles Million. The session ended with questions from the floor, the last of which was an enquiry about my age. I had to reveal that I would be 60 in two months, but added – to thunderous applause – that in the anglo-saxon world 60 was the new 40, and that life now begins at 60.
The presentation was followed by a two-hour signing session, which achieved a sellout of both The Blackhouse and The Lewis Man.
From today I will be embarking on a two-month tour of France to attend regional award ceremonies across the country. The tour is being combined with appearances at bookstores to promote “The Lewis Man” (L’homme de Lewis), the follow-up to “The Blackhouse”.
I recently had an email conversation with one of those British editors who originally rejected “The Blackhouse”, and who generously wrote to congratulate me on its success. She said, “At the time, I didn’t see how to sell it. Obviously I was wrong.”
I wrote back to say that I was not unhappy, since the book had found its time, and its place, with the right publisher – Quercus. But if it wasn’t for my French publisher, Le Rouergue, who rescued it from obscurity by buying world rights and selling it across Europe, the book would probably never have seen the light of day.
So it was particularly sweet to win this award in my adopted country – vindication for the French publisher who had faith in the book when no one else did.
Here is a list of the places I will be visiting between now and mid-December:
Bourg en Bresse
Villefranche de Rouergue
Following yesterday’s blog about our nightmare journey on Jet2 from Toulouse to Edinburgh via Nice, I made an amazing discovery… Jet2, it seems, employ internet spies. People who trawl the net looking for critical comments about their precious company and then striking back with self-righteous indignation – as well as slagging off the competition.
I linked to my blog from my Facebook fan page, which automatically posts it to Twitter.
And all afternoon, while trying to catch up on lost sleep, my iPad get chiming alerts from incoming tweets.
This was the tirade that awaited me when I finally gave up on trying to sleep and looked to see who was making so much noise (broken up, of course into tweet-sized chunks). It was from someone called “Cabinflyer30”. No giveaway there, then…
“Your blog made me chuckle (oh yeah?). Jet2 always push to get their passengers to their destinations. Whatever obstacles are put in their way. Even a strike out of their control. Many airlines would simply cancel and strand you until the next available flight becomes available. They don’t have the facility for free drinks on board. There isn’t enough to go round everyone on the plane. Also, if you take no hold bags, let them choose your seat and pay by electron, the first price you see is the price you pay. All the other add ons are variable depending on what you select. One day you will experience a real ordeal when your flight gets cancelled by the likes of Ryanair.”
Wow! This company doesn’t like criticism, and comes chasing you down if you dare to take their name in vain. I replied, as follows, in more tweet-sized chunks:
“Who the hell has electron? And when I fly with my partner I want to sit beside her. They didn’t even carry their advertised refreshments, or make any allowance for the extra hours. Information was non-existent. Yesterday I did experience a real ordeal at the hands of an airline that doesn’t give a damn about customer care. Let them give me an honest price and if I don’t want a bag in the hold deduct it from the total. Just a little honesty, please. And I wonder who pays your wages!”
Back came Cabinflyer30:
“I wonder. LOL! I really care about my job. And believe me, they really do care about the customer. The easy option if they didn’t care would be to cancel the flight. What products didn’t they have available? Sandwiches? If so, these can sell out. There is only so much space in the chiller for these. With bags… all the competitors charge for bags. If they were included the base price would be higher than the competition. When you choose free online check-in, system gives you adjacent seats free of charge.”
I was getting tired of the vacuous stream of PR tat by then and replied, simply: “Give me a break!”
But Cabinflyer30 wouldn’t let it go:
“Give me a break, too. LOL. (Note the use of the light-hearted LOL to create the false impression of friendly banter.) The amount of planning just to get you to Nice requires an outrageous amount of extra planning and effort as well as money. Airlines are very complex businesses and sometime things don’t go to plan.”
Well, you know, despite the fact that the airline gave no warning or information (although knowing of the situation days in advance); despite the fact that they failed to stock up on food for passengers who were going to miss meals and be stuck on an aircraft for hours; despite failing to even offer water to thirsty and irritable customers; and even despite their deliberately misleading pricing system and confusing website, I wanted to give them due credit, even although it seems to me that the business of an airline is to carry passengers from A to B. So I conceded…
“Credit where it’s due. They did get us to our destination. But a little thoughtfulness might have taken the pain out of it. And I won’t fly with you again for reasons aforementioned.”
But, of course, I knew that Cabinflyer30 would want the last word, and I wasn’t wrong. Back came Jet2’s defender:
“Ok, fair enough. Maybe cancelling may have been better for you? Such a shame.”
So who, I wondered, was Cabinflyer30, exactly. No information given on the profile. However, here are some telling stats. Cabinflyer30 follows 31 people and has 12 followers. He/she/it has made a total of 222 tweets – most of them to me, it seems!
Honestly, how pathetic is that?
Yesterday I set off to research the third book in my Lewis trilogy. This entailed a two-leg flight. Toulouse to Edinburgh on Saturday. Overnight at an airport hotel in Edinburgh. Then Edinburgh to Stornoway in the Outer Hebrides today.
So why am I waking up in a hotel in Dunfermline, in Fife, a loooong way from Edinburgh? And why did I not get to my bed till 3am French time?
Well, it turns out that there is a strike of fuelers at Toulouse. Which actually turns out to have been going for a couple of days. But did the airline, Jet 2, tell us about it? No. Nothing on their website, no announcement at the airport. The first we knew that anything was wrong was when a girl arrived at the departures desk at the gate and put up a note on the screen warning that the flight was an hour late.
It was due to take off at 7.25pm. We weren’t aboard an aeroplane until 9pm. Only then did the pilot tell us about the strike and announce that he was going to have to fly to Nice to refuel.
So, after flying an hour in the wrong direction, and spending another hour on the ground perspiring in sweltering heat, we finally took off for Edinburgh, ETA 12.30am (1.30am French time). So did the airline offer a complementary drink, even a glass of water (given that there was no way we were going to get to eat when landing in Edinburgh)? No. They came round with their sales trolley, barely apologising for the fact that they didn’t actually have any of their advertised meals on board. So what was on offer? A packet of crisps (washed down with a miniature bottle of wine) a Twix bar and a horrible, stewed cup of watery coffee. And how much did they charge? £16.
This is the airline that lies to you about the price of your flight to con you into buying a ticket – only for you to discover that you then have to pay for a seat, pay for booking on the internet, pay for using a credit card (although no alternative way of buying is offered), pay to put your bag in the hold. It is the airline that sends bag fascists around the seats at the departure gate to see if you are concealing a handbag – which is NOT allowed.
Remind me NEVER to fly with Jet 2 again.
However, that wasn’t the end of the story.
Finally arriving in Edinburgh just short of 1am, we queued in the cold and dark to wait for the shuttle that would take us the five minutes to our hotel – to be met by a grim-faced receptionist. They had given our room away, and there were no others in the hotel.
“I’ve got a taxi waiting at the door for you,” he said. “It will take you on a very short 20-minute ride to another hotel where I’ve managed to get you a room.”. He stuffed £60 in grubby notes into my hand to pay for the hotel and promised to send a taxi to pick us up and take us back to the airport in the morning.
I resisted the temptation to introduce him to the knuckles of my right hand, and we dragged ourselves off to the taxi, whose driver confessed he had no idea where he was going. But he did confide with a giggle, “That guy in there was brickin’ it!”
The short 20-minute ride turned into a 40-minute, £40 marathon in the dark, across the Forth road bridge into deepest, darkest Fife. Which is how I come to be waking up (after 5 hours’ sleep) in a hotel in Dunfermline.
I hardly dare wonder what today holds in store.
I leave tomorrow morning on a seven-day trip to the north-west of France, which may determine the future of my career.
My book “The Blackhouse”, published in French as “L’île des chasseurs d’oiseaux” (The Island of the Bird Hunters), has been shortlisted for a very prestigious French literary award, the Prix Litteraire Cézam – one of ten novels selected from around Europe.
I am going to talk to just some of the 4000 readers from around France who will read and vote on the books. My first stop is a prison in Angers – yes, prisoners, too, get a voice in the decision-making process.
I will be speaking at 12 events in five days – a gruelling schedule, followed in May by a trip to south-east France, and in June to Paris, and a meeting with the other nominated writers.
The results of the vote will be returned for counting in September, and the winner announced at a glitzy event in Strasbourg in October. In addition to the overall winner, each one of the twenty-two regions participating get the chance to vote for their own favourite.
Winner takes all – along with a massive boost to book sales.
Whether, in the end, it is my book or someone else’s which wins, remains to be seen. But tomorrow I take the first step on that road to Strasbourg full of hope – that my French will be up to it!
I make my living by licensing publishers to print and make available to the public my coyrighted material. In return, I get a percentage of the retail price of the book – eight or ten percent. It’s called a royalty payment. As a writer I am only able to pay my bills as a result of receiving royalty payments.
So, naturally, I am in favour of the principle of royalties.
But the royalties field is a very uneven one, and if someone chooses to steal my work and sell it without paying me my due, in truth there is very little I can do about it. And in this electronic age, pirates are plundering my assets left, right and centre.
Take Google, for example – those enlightened schoolboys who were going to change the world for the better. They just stole almost everything I ever wrote and made it available to anyone on the internet for nothing. Just copied it and put it up there.
And what can I do about it? Sweet FA.
Of course, they face a class action from any number of writers who have suffered the same fate. But that action is being led by a small, unrepresentative group who are advocating a settlement that will cost Google a lot of money, and if I’m lucky put 50 dollars in my pocket. Big deal!
Now here’s the irony.
As someone who believes in paying due royalties, I went in search of the owners of the lyrics of the Elvis Presley song, “Heartbreak Hotel”, because I wanted to include four lines from the song in my follow-up to “The Blackhouse”, which is called “The Lewis Man”.
After a lengthy process of tracking down the company which licenses reprint permission, I was told that those four lines were going to cost me a sum of money which would, eventually, run to thousands – to cover all the international and paperback editions of the book.
Crazy, isn’t it? Four lines from the lyrics of a song which are all over the internet. Four lines from a song written more than fifty years ago, whose writers are both dead (and don’t need my royalty payments to pay their bills). Four lines from a song which, had I paid for them, would promptly have been stolen by Google (and God knows who else) and made available to anyone who cared to download them.
So what did I do? Well, I cut the four lines, of course. It doesn’t make that much difference to the book, though of course it lost a little of its colour.
Madness or what?
I thought it might be interesting to publish a selection of excerpts from the emails that have come flooding into my website since the publication of “The Blackhouse”. So here goes…
My partner has just read The Blackhouse – she tells me it is the best book she has read for a long time! My turn next! (AS)
I have just started the book – not sure if I can put it down though!!! (AS)
I’ve just finished reading The Blackhouse and I thought I’d like to send you my compliments on what I think is your finest work to date (and that’s saying something given the quality of your previous works!!). The book is completely compelling and the plot held me totally from the first page to the last… (PM) – no, it’s not me!
and this from a 15-year-old girl…
Four days ago on a shopping trip I spontaneously purchased ‘The Blackhouse’ by Peter May. I finished the book approximately 2 hours ago. I would like to congratulate you on a captivating novel. I thought the book was incredibly unique, probably because of the detail and passion you expressed towards the Scottish traditions and cultures in the book… To conclude, I would like to say that I think your writing style is very special and that I thoroughly relished every page of your book. (AD)
I am an avid reader and have just finished reading The Blackhouse. Truly one of the best books I have ever read. (LR)
I’d just like to tell you how much I enjoyed “The Blackhouse”. I’m from Greenock and live in Derbyshire now, so the Outer Hebrides might as well be on the moon, but the book brought Lewis to life in what felt like a very heartfelt novel…. A terrific and affecting read. (DP)
What a great, great book. On the one hand I didn’t want to put it down, on the other hand I didn’t want to finish it, because I didn’t want the reading of it to come to an end… best thing I’ve read in a very long time. (DM)
this one cracked me up…
I would like to say that this is the first book of yours I have read (The Blackhouse). I wish I had read your other books, now I will… I could not put it down. I read the book instead of looking at the Welsh Rugby team playing England. My wife could not believe it that I read a book instead of looking at the rugby match on TV (I am a Welsh man)! (KO)
and this I take as the greatest compliment of all, coming from the man who leads the real guga hunters out to a storm-lashed rock (Sulasgeir) in the North Atlantic every August…
Hi Pete, just to let you know how much the Sulasgeir crew liked The Blackhouse. I just could not put it down, reading till 1 am. every morning. I was knackered. Thank God I finished it. All the best from the Sulasgeir crew. (JDM)
Life for a writer living in France is very different from the UK or the US.
Here, every small, medium and large town has its own annual book festival. Writers from all over the country are invited to come and participate in debates and round tables, to meet readers and sign books.
The organisers, usually subsidised by Government arts money, pay all expenses.
The bookstores and libraries organise rencontres – events where writers are presented to readers by animateurs, like television presenters. Extracts from the books are read by professional or semi-professional readers.
Above all, writers are treated with a level of respect that is rarely found in the English-speaking world. You don’t have to be a bestseller to be recognised as having a unique talent.
I write thrillers, or crime books, a genre generally looked down upon by the sniffy literati in the UK. In France, polars as they are called, are regarded in the same way as any other work of literature. A book like “The Blackhouse” is described as a “roman noir” – literally a black novel – and is presented for literary prizes on the same level as any other novel.
“The Blackhouse” is one of ten European novels which have been shortlisted for a major national literary award called the CEZAM Prix Littéraire. It is a prize organised by committées d’entreprises in the country’s 22 regions. A commitée d’entreprise is similar to a British Chamber of Commerce. The ten books having been shortlisted, committees are formed in all the regions, and the nominated writers invited to talk to readers in local bookstores, town halls, and even prisons.
The books are read by nearly 5000 readers who mark each one according to predetermined criteria – story, character, quality of writing etc. Each region chooses its own winner, but the results are also aggregated, and a national winner will be announced this year in October at a prize-giving ceremony in Strasbourg.
In three short weeks I will embark on an intensive seven days of public appearances in two of those regions – Brittany and the Pay de la Loire – talking to readers who will be voting on my book.
Two of those appearances will take place behind bars, talking to groups of literate prisoners who are among those 5000 voters. Not my first time in a French penitentiary. I had to talk to prisoners in the north-west of France in 2007 when nominated for the unique Prix Intramuros (prize between the walls) which is determined solely by French convicts. On that occasion, I won. But the competition is, perhaps, much stiffer this time around.
Last year’s winner was the Booker-nominated Irish author, Sebastian Barry, with “The Secret Scripture”.
As I set off at the beginning of April to meet my schedule of events, I will blog and tweet my way through the kilometers to give a flavour of what it is like for a writer on the road in France. And those blogs and tweets are likely to be the only English passing through my head during those onerous early spring days. For I will be expected to speak only French.
I’m just heading off now to brush up on my French prison slang!
How often is it that everything in life comes full circle?
Just three weeks ago, I returned for the first time to the city which was home to my first serious love. Her name was Maria Nurita, and I was fourteen years old when I met her on holiday in Spain.
The publication of the Spanish edition of my latest and most successful book, “The Blackhouse” – La Isla de los cazadores de pájaros – took me back to that city many years later. Of course, it was too much to hope that I would chance upon her in the street. I wouldn’t know her now even if I had. But I did have the spookiest sensation of haunting the streets of my own childhood where the ambition to write had been born.
Stranger still, however, was the journey back, two weeks ago, to the country of my birth – and the setting for “The Blackhouse” itself. I have not lived in Scotland for ten years, and have only returned once in that time for the wedding of my daughter. But to launch the book I flew to the capital for events at Blackwell’s in Edinburgh, and Waterstone’s in Glasgow.
It was a strangely emotional return, and I found myself once more walking the streets of my youth. Edinburgh, where I trained as a journalist. Glasgow, where I was born and grew up. I kept having the feeling that I would turn a corner and bump into the teenage me.
But the defining moment came on the third day of my trip. Quercus rep., John McColgan, was driving me to various bookstores across the Central Belt to sign stock. We had lunch in Glasgow, and then he told me we would be going to the Waterstone’s store at Newton Mearns on the city’s south side during the afternoon.
My heart skipped a beat. This was where I grew up and went to school – the school which had so ignominiously sent me packing halfway through my sixth year (I played in a band, and my hair was too long for the headmaster’s liking). Dumped suddenly on to the street in a bleak mid-term, I took whatever job was going. And that happened to be a position as trainee car salesman with a very prestigious Chrysler dealership in Newton Mearns. I stayed for a year, and the sales office in Anderson’s car showroom was where I sat down one day and filled in a form that would change my life – an application for one of the 12 places available at an Edinburgh college which provided training for journalists.
Out of nearly 300 applicants I was lucky enough to win one of those places, and I never looked back, embarking on a career that segued from journalism into books, into television, and back to books.
That was when I was 18 years old, and I had never returned until John McColgan took me stock signing.
It was with an odd sense of déjà vu that we approached Mearns Cross. Anderson’s had been on the south-west corner. But when we got there, to my shock, it was gone. Obliterated. And replaced by a sprawling shopping centre.
It wasn’t until we parked the car and were making our way through the centre to Waterstone’s that I got my bearings and realised that the bookstore was right on top of the very spot where I had once sold cars. I felt the hair rise up on the back of my neck. It was as if I had stepped on my own grave and bumped into the ghost of the 18-year-old me.
Here I was, all these years later, back in the same space that younger me had once occupied, signing the books that the older me would write so many years later.
How could I ever have foreseen such a moment?
Fate? Design? Or just the closing of another circle?
Most writers will be able to look back over their lives and remember the moment when they realised that writing was what they wanted to do.
That moment for me came, perhaps, earlier than most. I wrote my first book aged four. My parents had taught me to read and write even before I went to school, and something inside me, even at that early age, was impelling me to tell stories.
The book was called “The Little Elf”, and was nearly 120 words long, scrawled over eight pages in black crayon. I even created a cover for it, and sewed the pages together (with help, I guess, from my mother). I still have it. My very first story.
At school I always loved to create a short story when asked to write an essay in an exam. In my Higher English exam – the last before leaving secondary school – I got so engrossed in writing a short story about a man without papers travelling on a train through Franco’s Spain, that I didn’t leave nearly enough time for the rest of the exam.
By then, of course, there was no doubt at all in my mind that I would be a writer.
I suppose the clinching moment came when returning from a holiday in Spain with my family. I was fourteen years old, and had just met the first love of my teenage years. She was a Spanish girl, Maria Nurita Sanchez Pradell, on holiday with her family from Barcelona where her father was a lawyer.
I spent the whole holiday in the company of Nurita and her sister Christina, and a Scottish boy we had met called Ian Brockie. It was a holiday that changed the course of my future life.
Inspired by the strange teenage hormonal feelings aroused by the encounter, I wrote my first real book. It was around 50,000 words long – a fantasy romp about the teen band I then played with, and the two Spanish sisters. It was called “The Aristokrats in Spain” (The Aristokrats being the name of the band). Of course, the book was never published (and didn’t deserve to be), but was an experience that drove me on to write more, eventually having my first book published ten years later.
Such was the influence of that encounter in Spain, that I was first attracted to the girl I went on to marry because she looked like Nurita. A mistake, as it turned out. Although the one good thing to come out of it was my beautiful daughter Carol who, had it not been for that serendipitous Spanish romance, would never have existed.
The rest, in a sense, is history – journalism, television, books… But all of it driven from something innate, and a chance meeting at a Spanish hotel in the early sixties. Although we corresponded for some time after that holiday, I never did meet Nurita and her sister again, and she will have no idea how she inspired me to write, and changed my life forever. Chances are she probably doesn’t even remember me.
But there is one sad coda to this tale. Ian Brockie, whom we hung out with during that holiday, came from Wigtownshire in the south-west of Scotland. He and I did meet again. I went to stay with him at Wigtown and visit his family’s holiday cottage at the Isle of Whithorn (I also overnighted at that cottage some years later with members of the band after we had played a gig nearby). He came to stay with me in Glasgow.
The last time I set eyes on him, however, was at a Free Concert in Glasgow in 1970, in the outdoor arena at Kelvingrove Park. I had just embarked on a college course in journalism, and he was studying to be a mariner.
And then we lost touch, and I never heard of him again.
Until many years later, when living in a small village in South Ayrshire, two elderly women stopped in at the local pub where I was lunching one day. With something like amazement I realised that one of them was Ian’s mother. I made myself known to her and asked after her son.
Her face clouded and she told me that he had been in a serious car accident, and was now confined to a wheelchair.
Fate leads us off in such very different directions.
And now I find myself coming full circle. On Sunday I set off on a trip to Barcelona to promote the Spanish translation of “The Blackhouse”, back to the home of the girl who sparked it all off. What an amazing twist of fate it would be if we were to meet again. But I know that will never happen, and I can’t help but wonder whatever happened to Maria Nurita Sanchez Pradell.
I guess I’ll never know.
For those of you interested in reading the full story of Ian the Elf, it can be seen in the following slideshow…
(No doubt my editor would tell me that I still have a predilection for starting sentences with “and”!)
The Book Depository offers FREE worldwide delivery of the hard cover edition of The Blackhouse (with 25% off the cover price, too).
I have to confess to a certain nervous anticipation about the forthcoming publication of my book, “The Blackhouse”.
This is the first of my books in several years to get a proper launch. While seven of them have been published in France in recent times, along with the entire China series and (almost) five Enzo books in the United States, their publications have been marked simply by the passing of a date. The official publication date, from when the books are available in the shops (although, in truth, they are usually on the shelves before then).
This time it is different. Although “The Blackhouse” has already been published in France – where it won literary prizes and was described by the French national daily, L’Humanité, as “a masterpiece” – this is its first appearance in English. And my publisher, Quercus, is planning two launches. One in my home town of Glasgow, the other in Scotland’s capital city, Edinburgh.
My trip back to Scotland for these launches, will be accompanied by a host of press interviews and stock signings. I will get to meet up with old friends, and readers, whom I haven’t seen for years. Quite an emotional homecoming, made more poignant by the fact that “The Blackhouse” is the only book I have written which takes place entirely in my native Scotland.
On its actual publication date, February 3rd, I will be in Barcelona. For the book is also coming out in Spanish at the same time, as well as in German, and a little later in Italian and other languages.
To mark the Spanish publication under the title “La isla de los cazadores de pájaros”, my publisher, Random House Mondadori, has invited me to the week-long crime writing festival in Barcelona which takes place from the end of January, Barcelona Negra. There I face several days of press interviews and festival events, along with the opportunity to explore the city – my first trip there since passing through it in darkness on a holiday coach forty-five years ago.
The trip to Barcelona will, in itself, be quite an event. I am taking a night-train from Limoges in France, lodged in my own private compartment, and receiving breakfast there as the train draws into the Catalonian capital first thing the next morning. I believe the railway gauge changes between France and Spain, but I have no idea how or where they effect the changeover.
“The Blackhouse” is the first book in the Lewis Trilogy. The second is written, and its English title now determined as “The Lewis Man”. It will also appear first in French, title yet to be decided. The publishers are so excited about it, they have already decided to launch it at la rentrée, 2011, which is the moment when everyone goes back to work after the summer holidays in France. And they have asked me to go to Arles, the HQ of Actes Sud, in May to meet the reps before they go out to sell it to the bookstores.
And, of course, “The Blackhouse” has been nominated for a highly prestigious French literary award, the “Prix littéraire Inter CE”. It is one of ten novels chosen from around Europe and the winner will be decided later in the year.
So it is a time filled with excitement, and not a little apprehension, as the book I wrote five years ago, and which languished in rejection during most of that time, is finally published in its original language. Even since Quercus offered me the three-book contract for the trilogy, nearly fifteen months have passed. Fifteen months of waiting and patient build-up. Cover, promotion, review copies, blogs, interviews. The book has been taken by two major supermarket chains in the UK, Asda and Sainsbury’s, and the former is planning a special St. Valentine’s Day promotion for it. This is the biggest hardback print run of any book I have ever had published, and the anticipation is killing.
But one thing is for sure. After all this time, February 3rd will come and go, the earth won’t move beneath my feet, the world will keep turning, and I will suffer, inevitably, from a huge sense of anti-climax.
The only uncertainty is how the book will be received by the critics, and therefore the readers. I will post the good reviews as they come in, and burn the bad ones.
Let’s hope there is a preponderance of the former!
PS: Just for fun, here is the book trailer made for it by my Spanish publisher…
The Book Depository offers FREE worldwide delivery of the hard cover edition of The Blackhouse (with 25% off the cover price, too).
The world of writing and publishing is full of horror stories about books turned down by major publishers which then went on to become bestsellers – J. K. Rowling and the first of the Harry Potter books being one of the most recent and spectacular examples.
In a European experiment conducted in the last few years, specially prepared modern manuscripts of classic pieces of literature were sent to various publishing houses. Not only did the editors fail to recognise the works, they were ALL rejected. Imagine! Masterpieces like “Les Misérables” might never have seen the light of day.
It makes you wonder what great books might have been written that we will never have the chance to read, what wonderful writers are going unheralded – victims of the “factory farming” model of modern publishing.
My own example is, perhaps, not quite so spectacular, but certainly an indictment of that model.
It concerns my book, “The Blackhouse”, which will be published for the first time in the UK in February. It has already been out for over a year in France, where it has been hugely successful, winning awards and nominations.
I have made a short video about it. Not the story of the book (I will leave the book to tell its own tale), but the story behind it.
Watch for yourself, and tell me what you think…
I live in a country where streets and squares are named after famous writers, inventors, soldiers and politicians. But I think I have found a new slant on this – and one which has a very personal connection to me and my books.
A number of years ago, I was drawn to the Gaillac wine-producing region of south-west France. Two particular wines had attracted me: the Cuvée Special of Château Lastours, and the oak-aged Syrah of Domaine Sarrabelle. I had tasted both, and loved them, and so decided to track down the vineyards that produced them.
It was a fateful decision. Because I fell in love with Gaillac and its wines, and decided to set one of my series of Enzo Files books among the vineyards of the area.
As luck would have it, both Château Lastours and Domaine Sarrabelle were willing to help me with my research, and I ended up using both vineyards (under different names) in the book – THE CRITIC. Château Lastours became Château Saint-Michel, and Domaine Sarrabelle became Domaine de la Croix Blanche (the white cross).
I was given full access to both wineries during the harvesting and production of the wine, and in fact spent a morning hand-picking grapes with the family Caussé and their friends on Domaine Sarrabelle – sweet, white Mauzac grapes for the Methode Gaillacoise (the Gaillac version of Champagne). Afterwards, I lunched with them at a long table in the cellar of their house – consuming copious amounts of good food and wine.
When the book came out and I went to the States to promote it, Domaine Sarrabelle had wines shipped out so that I could offer my readers, at the various book events, a taste of the wines they were going to read about. And as a reward for my promotion of Gaillac wines abroad, I was made a Chevalier of the Ordre de la Dive Bouteille (the Order of the Divine Bottle).
Domaine Sarrabelle went on to stock and sell English copies of my book in their tasting room, and still do, while awaiting the translation of the Enzo Files into French.
I make frequent visits to the vineyard to stock up on my favourite wines, and have become firm friends of Fabien and Laurent Caussé, their partners, parents and grandparents.
I recently returned for a tasting tour during the autumn wine-fest, and imagine my surprise when Fabien steered me into the huge wine shed and produced two bottles for me to look at – one red, one white, both bearing a white cross insignia and the name Croix Blanche.
They had named two new wines after the fictitious name I had given their vineyard in the book.
I was both touched, and honoured, and consider that having a wine called after a creation in one of my books is an even greater distinction than having a street named after me. Boulevard Peter May doesn’t really chime. But to sit round a table with friends at a meal and quaff a bottle or two of Croix Blanche seems to me like the ultimate accolade.
Vive le wine!
PS: Believe it or not, these wines are now available in the United States, imported by Jon-David Headrick Selections LLC of Asheville, North Carolina.
Ce n’est pas le blog que je projetais d’écrire. Mais j’ai besoin de partager cette histoire – pour en atténuer la tristesse.
Je n’avais que quatre ans quand je suis entré à l’école. C’était en 1956. Je me souviens parfaitement de cette journée. Le matin, ma mère m’a accompagné. Nous avons fait le trajet à pied – environ trois kilomètres. Persuadé d’être assez grand pour retrouver mon chemin tout seul, j’ai refusé qu’elle vienne me chercher à la sortie des classes.
Naturellement, je me suis perdu. Quelle histoire ! Mémorables débuts!
Un autre évènement de taille a marqué cette journée particulière : je suis tombé amoureux. Ridicule, hein ! À quatre ans. C’est pourtant vrai. Amoureux d’une petite fille que je n’avais jamais vue, Jennifer. Elle habitait une ferme, à trois kilomètres de l’école – mais à l’opposé de l’endroit où je vivais.
Jennifer avait un délicieux sourire, des fossettes sur les joues, des nattes attachées par des rubans ; et elle penchait la tête avec coquetterie en me fixant de ses adorables yeux sombres.
Le samedi matin, j’ai déclaré à mes parents que je voulais aller jouer chez elle. À mon grand désarroi, on me l’a interdit – c’était beaucoup trop loin, et il y avait deux grandes routes à traverser !
Alors, le samedi suivant, je suis parti en douce, sans rien dire à personne. J’ai traversé la première route en faisant très attention, et emprunté des chemin de terre jusqu’à ce que j’aperçoive la ferme au loin. Pour éviter la deuxième route, j’ai coupé à travers champs – et couru en moulinant des bras devant un taureau médusé avant qu’il ait le temps de me capter dans sa ligne de mire et de charger.
Jennifer et moi, on a joué dans la grange au milieu des balles de foin. C’est là que j’ai eu droit à mon premier baiser. J’ai renouvelé mon escapade plusieurs week-ends de suite, jusqu’au jour fatal où la mère de mon amie s’est mis dans la tête de téléphoner chez moi pour demander si je pouvais rester déjeuner. Mon secret était dévoilé !
Terminées les visites en cachette à la ferme. Mais nous avons continué à nous fréquenter par intermittence pendant les sept années de l’école primaire.
Lorsque notre tour est arrivé de passer en secondaire, Jennifer et moi étions justement en froid à ce moment-là. J’ai invité une autre fille, Irene, au Qualie Dance (le bal de qualification), la soirée fêtant cet événement.
Une semaine avant le bal, Jennifer m’a envoyé une lettre. Elle ne comprenait pas pourquoi je ne lui avais pas demandé d’être ma cavalière et suggérait que mon ami Derek me remplace auprès d’Irene. Malheureusement, je ne pouvais plus faire marche arrière. J’ai gardé sa lettre signée : « La fille de la ferme ». Et je regrette encore la peine que je lui ai causée.
Je suis donc allé au bal avec Irene. À la rentrée, Jennifer et moi sommes partis dans des lycées différents.
Plus tard, devenu journaliste à Glasgow, j’ai lu un article sur la première femme autorisée à conduire une voiture de police. C’était Jennifer. Puis, peut-être un an après, je l’ai croisée au tribunal où je couvrais un procès pour homicide ; elle accompagnait, de son côté, un témoin mineur. On a échangé quelques mots gênés, et je ne l’ai plus jamais revue.
Retour au présent. Il y a quelques années, après avoir achevé ma série des thrillers chinois, je me suis attelé à un roman complètement différent situé en Écosse, aux Hébrides, où j’avais tourné pendant cinq ans une série de dramatiques pour la télévision. Dans ce roman, les souvenirs d’enfance du personnage principal, qui a grandi sur l’île, occupent une grande partie du récit ; je me suis naturellement beaucoup inspiré des miens.
Jennifer y tenant une place importante, elle est devenue le personnage de Marsaili. Les visites défendues à la ferme, le baiser au milieu des balles de foin, et même la lettre de « La fille de la ferme » sont immortalisés dans ce livre, « L’île des chasseurs d’oiseaux », qui paraîtra en anglais le 3 février 2011, aux éditions Quercus. Il y a quelques mois, je me suis dit qu’il serait amusant de retrouver la trace de Jennifer pour lui annoncer que nos aventures enfantines étaient entrés au royaume de la fiction.
Je n’ai rien trouvé sur le net. J’ai seulement réussi à voir sa maison, depuis chez moi, en France, grâce à Google Street View. Reconvertie en élégante résidence haut de gamme, elle n’a plus rien d’une ferme.
J’ai tenté de la contacter par le biais du site « Friends Reunited », sans succès.
Finalement, je me suis connecté aux archives nationales d’Écosse où il est possible de consulter les registres des naissances, décès et mariages.
À mon grand étonnement, aucune Jennifer n’était née entre 1950 et 1952. J’ai élargi la recherche, en me disant que Jennifer était peut-être son deuxième prénom. Rien. J’ai écrit à notre ancienne école. Pas de réponse. Comme si elle n’avait jamais existé.
Il y a quelques jours, j’ai tenté à nouveau une recherche, en recoupant cette fois mariages et dates de naissances ; et j’ai découvert qu’une Janet portant le même nom de famille que Jennifer, née en 1952 dans le Lanarkshire, à Carluke, non loin de la ferme, s’était mariée en 1977, puis remariée quatre ans plus tard. Les deux mariages avaient eu lieu dans le district de Mearns and Eastwood, où elle avait grandi.
J’étais certain qu’il s’agissait d’elle. Il n’y avait pas d’autre possibilité. Peut-être avait-elle reçu le même prénom que sa mère ? Dans ce cas, on l’avait appelée Jennifer pour éviter toute confusion. Je ne trouvais rien d’autre, nulle part. Pour en être absolument sûr, j’ai décidé de procéder à une dernière vérification. Dans la liste des décès.
Et là, en 2002, enregistré dans le district de Mearns and Eastwood, figurait celui de cette même Janet.
J’avais encore une chance de me tromper. Or, par un étrange caprice du destin, le même jour, j’ai enfin reçu une réponse de mon ancienne école. Quelqu’un connaissait la famille de Jennifer. Mon espoir, un instant regonflé, s’est immédiatement brisé : mes recherches dans les archives nationales m’avaient conduit à la bonne conclusion.
La petite fille dont j’étais tombé amoureux dès mon premier jour d’école était morte. Une petite partie de moi-même est morte aussi quand je l’ai appris.
Dans le roman, mon personnage principal, Fin, revoit Marsaili – dix-huit ans plus tard…
Il ralentit, tourna dans l’allée des Macinnes, et arrêta la voiture à la porte du garage. Au-delà de la maison, un rayon de lune éclaboussait l’océan de fragments argentés. Il y avait de la lumière dans la cuisine ; par la fenêtre, Fin aperçut une silhouette devant l’évier. Il tressaillit en reconnaissant Marsaili, ses longs cheveux blonds un peu plus foncés maintenant, strictement tirés en arrière, retenus en queue de cheval sur la nuque. Sans maquillage, elle paraissait un peu lasse, pâle ; des cernes soulignaient ses yeux bleus dont l’éclat s’était terni. En entendant la voiture, elle redressa la tête ; Fin éteignit aussitôt les phares de façon qu’elle ne puisse distinguer autre chose qu’un reflet d’elle-même dans la vitre. Comme déçue par ce qu’elle voyait, elle se détourna rapidement. À cet instant, il eut la vision fugitive de la petite fille qui l’avait ensorcelé dès le premier regard.
Je n’avais aucune raison de nous croire immortels. Pourtant, sans savoir pourquoi, j’avais toujours pensé que je la reverrais.
J’ai pris contact avec ses deux fils et l’une de ses sœurs. Je tenais à ce qu’ils sachent que, même si Jennifer a disparu depuis huit ans, elle vit encore à travers les mots que j’écris et mes souvenirs de ces journées à la ferme.
Traduction de la lettre de Jennifer
Je ne sais pas pourquoi tu as invité Irene au Qually tu pourrais dire à tes amis de dire à Irene que tu ne veux pas y aller avec elle et laisser quelqu’un d’autre l’emmener comme Derek par exemple.
J’espère que tu vas te décommander.
P.S. Tu pourrais toujours m’inviter
Envoyé par La fille de la ferme
Traduction du blog, grâce à Ariane Bataille
This isn’t the blog I planned to write. But it’s a story I need to share, a kind of spreading of the pain.
I was just four years old when I started school in 1956. I remember that first day well. My mum walked me to the school. It was about two miles. But I figured I was a big boy, and could find my own way home. So I insisted that she didn’t come to get me at the end of the day.
Of course, I got lost. And there was a great hullabaloo. Memorable first days!
But there is something else that sticks in my mind about that particular first day. I fell in love. How ridiculous is that! Four years old. But I did. With a little girl I had cast eyes on for the very first time. Her name was Jennifer, and she lived on a farm a couple of miles away in the opposite direction from where my house was.
She had a beautiful dimpled smile, and pigtails in ribbons, and she used to dip her head coyly and look up at me with lovely dark eyes.
Come Saturday morning I told my parents I wanted to go to the farm to play with her. And to my dismay I was expressly forbidden. It was too far, and entailed the crossing of two busy main roads!
So, naturally, the following weekend I made a secret trip to the farm without telling a soul. I carefully crossed the first main road, and then walked the rest of the way on farm roads till I could see her farm in the distance. To avoid the second main road I took a short-cut across the fields, running with arms windmilling past a startled bull before it had a chance to take stock and charge at me.
Jennifer and I played games among the bales in the barn. And I had my first ever kiss there. I went back over several weekends, until one fateful day her mum took it into her head to phone my mum to ask if I could stay for lunch. And the cat was out of the bag!
No more illicit visits to the farm.
But our relationship continued off and on through the seven years of primary school. The final dance, before heading off to secondary school, was called the Qualie (qualification) Dance. And it just happened to coincide with one of our off periods. So I asked a girl called Irene to go to the dance with me instead.
The week before the dance I received in the post a letter from Jennifer. She couldn’t understand why I hadn’t asked her, and suggested that my friend Derek could take Irene and I could ask Jennifer instead. It was signed “The Girl from the Farm”. I still have that letter today. But it was all too late, and I have regretted all my life the hurt I caused her.
I went to the dance with Irene, and Jennifer and I went on to different secondary schools.
Years later, working as a journalist in Glasgow, I saw an article in the paper about the first ever policewoman to take charge of a traffic patrol car. It was Jennifer. And then a year or so later, I met her in the High Court when I was covering a murder trial, and she was accompanying a child witness. We exchanged a few awkward words, and I never set eyes on her again.
Fast forward to a few short years ago. I had finished writing my series of China Thrillers, and started work on a new, totally different novel set in the Outer Hebrides of Scotland where I had spent five years filming a TV drama series. In the story, much of the narrative involves the main character’s recollections of his childhood, growing up on the island, and for inspiration I drew heavily on my own childhood years.
Jennifer featured prominently and became the character called Marsaili. The illicit visits to the farm, the kiss among the bales, became immortalised in the text. Even the letter from “The Girl on the Farm”. The book is called “The Blackhouse”, and it will be published by Quercus on February 3rd. So a few months ago I thought it would be fun to track Jennifer down to let her know that our childhood adventures had made their way into fiction.
But when I went searching for her on the net, there was no trace of her to be found. From my home in France I managed to track down the farm, and look at it courtesy of Google Street View. No longer a working farm, it has been converted into an elegant upmarket residence.
I searched “Friends Reunited”, where former pupils and workmates reconnect. No sign of her.
Eventually I accessed the National Archives of Scotland online. At the ScotlandsPeople Centre, it is possible to track down the registration of births, deaths and marriages.
To my astonishment there was no record of Jennifer’s birth between 1950 and 1952. I widened the search, figuring that maybe Jennifer was her middle name. Still no luck. I wrote to our old school. No reply. It was as if she had never existed.
Then a few days ago, I tried searching through the marriage records and cross-referring them with birth records. Which is when I discovered that a Janet with the same surname, born at Carluke in Lanarkshire in 1952 (not that far from the farm Jennifer’s father tenanted), had married in 1977. Then four years later, she remarried. The marriages were registered in the Mearns and Eastwood district where we had grown up.
I was almost certain that this was Jennifer. There were no other possibilities. Maybe her mother was called Janet, and they had used the name Jennifer to avoid confusion. But not another record could I find of her anywhere. And so in an attempt at absolute verification I tried one last place. Registration of deaths.
And there, in 2002, recorded in the district of Mearns and Eastwood, was the death of that same Janet.
There was still an outside chance that I was wrong. But then, by a strange quirk of fate, that very same day I finally received a reply to the query I had sent to our old school. Someone there knew of Jennifer’s family. My hopes were raised, only to be dashed almost immediately by the news that my searches in the national archive had brought me to the correct conclusion.
That little girl whom I’d fallen in love with on that first day at school, was dead. And a little bit of me died too, when I learned that.
In the book, my main character, Fin, gets to see Marsaili again – eighteen years later. Here is the moment…
He slowed and turned down on to the Macinnes drive and stopped the car in front of the garage doors. A blink of moonlight splashed a pool of broken silver on the ocean beyond. There was a light on in the kitchen, and through the window Fin could see a figure at the sink. He realized, with a start, that it was Marsaili, long fair hair, darker now, drawn back severely from her face and tied in a pony tail at the nape of her neck. She wore no make-up and looked weary somehow, pale, with shadows beneath blue eyes that had lost their lustre. She looked up as she heard the car, and Fin killed the headlights so that all she could see would be a reflection of herself in the window. She looked away quickly, as if disappointed by what she’d seen, and in that moment he glimpsed again the little girl who had so bewitched him from the moment first he set eyes on her.
I don’t know why I should have believed that any of us is immortal. But somehow, I really always thought I would see wee Jennifer again.
I am in touch now with her family. She is survived by her sister and two sons. And I wanted them to know that even although Jennifer passed away eight years ago, she lives on in the words I wrote, and in the memories I have of those days on the farm.