The China Thrillers – new editions

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:

  1. The Firemaker – Summer of 1999
  2. The Fourth Sacrifice – Summer into autumn of 1999
  3. The Killing Room – Winter of 2000
  4. Snakehead – Summer of 2001
  5. The RunnerWinter of 2003
  6. 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.



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Reflections on Oz

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.

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Australia and New Zealand Tour

Dates and venues have just been confirmed for my tour of Australia and New Zealand…

Perth, Australia
Friday 19th February 11.30am – 12.30pm
Perth Writers’ Festival
Murdoch Theatre
Three masters of the crime genre, Peter May, Alan Carter and Garry Disher discuss their writing with Dawn Barker.
Free, no bookings

Perth, Australia
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

Perth, Australia
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
interviewed by Prof Liam McIlvanney

Adelaide, Australia
Sunday 28th February 10.45am – 11.45am
Adelaide Writers’ Week
Pioneer Women’s Memorial Garden
East Stage
PETER MAY interviewed by Victoria Purman

Adelaide, Australia
Monday 29th February 2.30pm – 3.30pm
Adelaide Writers’ Week
Pioneer Women’s Memorial Garden
West Stage
PETER MAY & MARGIE ORFORD discuss their crime writing

Brisbane, Australia
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

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Returning to the Hebrides in 2016

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)

click here to buy from

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January 2016

Waterstones, Deansgate
Thursday 14th January 7pm

Glasgow – centre
The Mitchell Library
Monday 18th January 1pm
The  Mitchell Library, North St, Glasgow G3 7DN
Book Online – buy tickets from box office on 0141 353 8000

Glasgow – Newton Mearns
Waterstones, The Avenue Shopping Centre
Monday 18th January 7pm
The Ironworks
Tuesday 19th January at 7pm
Edinburgh Central Library,
Wed 20 Jan 2016, 7pm
Thursday 21st January 7pm
Blackwell’s Oxford
Monday, January 25th at 7pm
Tickets: call 01865 333623 for more information or email

London – Piccadilly
Tuesday 26th January 6.30pm

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In Memoriam

Dr. Richard Ward

Dr. Richard Ward

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.

With Dick and his family at an early morning IHOP breakfast in Texas

With Dick and his family at an early morning IHOP breakfast in Texas

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.)

white picket
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. cover

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, Michelle and Sophia during a visit to stay with us in France

Dick, Michelle and Sophia during a visit to stay with us in France

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.

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2014 – What a Year!

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”…

poster Entry Island

Posters for Entry Island in railway stations in UK

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.

Peter May French bookstore

On tour 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.

peter may dialogues Brest

my interview being broadcast around three floors of the bookstore in Brest on video screens

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.

Le Monde
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!

Peter May Le Monde

Article in Le Monde daily newspaper in France

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.

Peter May Harrogate 2

In conversation with Ann Cleeves at the Harrogate Crime Writing Festival

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!

Peter May in Brno, Czech Republic

signing after the event in Brno, Czech republic

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.

Peter May in Brno

Filming in Brno, Czech Republic for a documentary

And here… rowing a boat on a lake with the film crew.

Peter May Brno

me rowing a boat with film crew filming for a documentary in the Czech Republic

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.

Peter May in Stornoway

Sunny in Stornoway for the launch of the paperback of Entry Island

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.

Peter May The Lewis Man Quercus USA

US advertisement for The Lewis Man

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!

Craig Ferguson and Peter May

The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson on network television in USA

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!

Peter May and Alanna Knight

with Alanna Knight at the Bloody Scotland Crime Writing Festival in Stirling

Stirling’s Albert Halls was packed with around 500 people for the event.

Albert Hall Stirling for Peter May event at Bloody Scotland

The packed Albert Hall in Stirling waiting for my event with Alanna Knight

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.

Peter May Bloody Scotland football game

giving the prize to the winning Scottish Crime Writers football team

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.

Peter May with Deanston Scottish Crime Novel of the Year

with a beautiful decanter of Deanston Malt whisky I received as the prize for the Deanston Scottish Crime Novel of the Year 2014

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!

Peter May's Entry Island

What the reviewers said about Entry Island

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.

Peter May in a suit

me in my suit

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.

Peter May and Val McDermid at ITV Specsavers Crime Thriller Awards

Val McDermid looks on as I try to adjust the tie that’s choking me!

Peter May with ITV Specsavers Dagger Award for the Crime Thriller Club Best Read of 2014

holding the ITV Specsavers Dagger Award for the Crime Thriller Club Best Read of 2014

The award really belongs to everyone at Quercus publishing for their support and in particular my editor Jon Riley.

Peter May Dagger Award

with Jon Riley and the Dagger Award

“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.

Peter May

me holding the ITV Specsavers Dagger Award for “Best Read”, with Jon Riley and Ron Beard from Quercus

And the rest…
But the year hasn’t all been about books.

Penn and May album "Runaway"

Penn and May album “Runaway”

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.

Peter May filming against Green Screen for music videos

Filming against Green Screen for music videos

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.

Peter May's Runaway out in UK January 15th 2015

Runaway out in UK January 15th 2015

You can find out more about the story behind it, here.

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!

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Penn&MayForty-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 used to have to work out the interest in books just like this - ten an hour!

I used to have to work out the interest in books just like this – ten an hour!

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 headed off in a van just like this.

We headed off in a van just like this.

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.”

Central Station, Glasgow

Central Station, Glasgow

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.MAYPENN origmaypenn new

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.withJo

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.maypenn corpsing

And here is the video Stephen made for the title track from the album – Runaway:

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In Defence of Curling

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.

Britain's Curling Teams

Britain’s Curling Teams

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Season’s Greetings!

I’d like to wish you all a wonderful festive season, and a very happy, healthy and prosperous 2014!

My sincere thanks to all of you who have supported my books over the years and who have contributed to the recent success of The Lewis Trilogy.BlackhouseCover1

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 will be available in hardback in the UK on Boxing Day, December 26th 2013!
If you want to buy Entry Island online, here are some useful links…ENTRY-30[1]

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,
January 2014

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.


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”.Chessmen

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.

Peter May with Barry Award for "The Blackhouse"

Me with the Barry Award for “The Blackhouse”

Readers in the USA have had to wait a long time to catch up with The Lewis Trilogy, but I’m glad to be able to tell you that The Lewis Man will be coming to the USA in 2014.untitled

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…


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
Tickets: £5
Interviewer: Robert Taylor, Editor of Inverness Courier
Tel for Tickets: 01463 233500

Tues 14th January
Late am
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
Tickets: £5
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, 
Interviewer: Helen Brown, Dundee Courier
Tickets: free but booking essential
Tel for tickets: 01382 200322

Tues 21st January

Waterstones’ Piccadilly, London

Tickets: £5/£3
Tel: 020 78512400


Wednesday 22 January 2014

Signing 6-7pm
Presentation 7-8pm
Venue: WH Smith,
Address: 248 Rue de Rivoli, 75001 Paris 

(Metro: Concorde)

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
Venue: Librairie Gilbert Joseph
Address: 26 Boulevard Saint-Michel, 75006 Paris, France

Phone: 01 44 41 88 88

Saturday 25 January 2014
Venue: Librairie Acacia
Address: 33/35 bd du Temple, 75003 Paris, France

(Métro République ou Filles du Calvaire)
Tél. : 01 48 04 76 52

Thanks again for your support and have a great festive season!


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Entry Island – Behind the Scenes

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.The Clearances

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.The Hector

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.Magdalen Islands

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.Grosse Île

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…

Peter May
December 2013

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