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Coffin Road starts with a man washed up on a beach on the Isle of Harris, half-drowned and with no idea who he is or how he got there. As he staggers off the beach a woman calls him by name and helps him into what he assumes must be his home.
A search of the cottage uncovers a bill in his name – Neal Maclean. The following morning, a couple arrive and greet him warmly. They ask how a book he is writing on three lighthouse keepers who went missing a century earlier is going, but after they leave he looks for evidence of the book and finds none, nor anything to suggest he is writing one.
It soon becomes apparent there is more than a friendly connection between Neal and his neighbour, Sally, and he confides in her about his memory loss. After finding a track marked on a map of the Coffin Road, he begins to think there is some connection so they set out to investigate. He comes across some beehives and surprises himself with the amount of knowledge he can recall about them. But why are the hives hidden and what have they got to do with him?
The discovery of a man’s body on a nearby island draws police attention to Neal and, just like the police, he begins to wonder if he killed the man.
Three separate stories run through the book – that of Neal Maclean, or at least the man who uses that name, detective sergeant George Gunn, who is investigating the murder, and a sullen and rebellious teenager called Karen Fleming, whose research scientist father committed suicide almost two years ago. What connects the three doesn’t become clear until late in the book, by which time the reader knows a lot more about Neal and what he really has been doing at the remote cottage.
The ending to Coffin Road came fast and furious. While it did tie up a few loose ends, it felt contrived and confused. There were several small flaws that a good editor should have picked up and I found May’s overly descriptive style a tad flowery for my liking.
Reviewed by Faye Lougher
by Peter May
Published by Quercus
Peter May appears at Dunedin City Library tonight at 6pm, head along and enjoy tales from a Scottish master storyteller. See the piece about the name of Coffin Road on our blog here.