Lead Review – a buzzing good mystery set in the HEBRIDES

  • Book: Coffin Road
  • Location: Isle of Harris
  • Author: Peter May

Review Author: tripfiction



A man, half drowned, is washed up on a beach on the Isle of Harris in the Hebrides. He has no idea who he is… Apparently (so he gathers from a lady he encounters on the beach) his home is close by. He staggers to it, and is welcomed by his hungry chocolate labrador. He showers and sleeps – and wakes up still with no idea of his identity. He discovers he is having an affair with the wife of one of his very few neighbours (when she comes to his bed at night…), but still no clues as to who he is.

In his house he finds a map of the island with the path of Coffin Road traced on it. Coffin Road is the route by which, in ancient times, bodies were transported across the island for burial in the softer earth of the south west. He presumes he is the one to have marked the map and sets out with Sally (the accommodating neighbour) and Bran (the aforementioned labrador) to explore and see if it can help his quest. He is not entirely honest with Sally as to his loss of memory… On a remote part of the track, hidden from view but clearly well known to the dog, they find a collection of well cared for bee hives. Our hero recognises the make up of the hives and how they work. He has to be a beekeeper. But why would he (assuming it was he) go to such trouble to hide them? He also discovers, from conversations with Sally and her husband, that he is allegedly writing a book about the long since disappearance of three lighthouse keepers from the Flannan Isles – about 20 miles off shore. He finds out he has travelled there frequently by boat, but that that there is no evidence of any book being written. Why did he visit?

Switch to Edinburgh. A teenage girl is trying to find out more about the apparent suicide of her father. He was a research biologist working on bees. When he discovered, and was about to publicise, the link between the damage to bees’ memory and the Neonicotinoids family of insectisides, his funding was suddenly withdrawn and his job disappeared. The girl is given a letter by her nervous godfather (who was also her father’s boss…) which indicates that her father may not in fact be dead. She sets out to find him. After a series of adventures and dramas (and the odd murder), we learn that the Swiss agrochemical giant behind the manufacture of Neonicotinoids will go to any lengths to to prevent disclosure of the link to bees’ ill health.

And now, the third strand of the book. The local police find a body on the Flannan Isles. The victim has been bludgeoned to death. Their suspicions turn towards our hero, who visits the Isles, but doesn’t write about them. He too suspects he may be the perpetrator but, because of his memory loss, is unable to be of any real help to the very frustrated police. Not a good situation for anyone.

All three stands of course come together in a very dramatic and well worked conclusion. No more for fear of a spoiler…

In TripFiction terms Coffin Road is an excellent read. The terrain and character of both the Isle of Harris and of the Flannan Isles come through loud and clear. Places that seems well worth a visit. Great locations and a great story – what more could you want? Oh, and this was written a good few years ago – before the link between bees’ health and Neonicotinoids was anywhere nearly as well publicised as it his today. We ignore the link at the world’s peril. Without bees pollenating our crops, we would be living in a very different place… if, indeed, we were living at all.

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