It's a Guy Thing

Lost in Literature: The Peter May Effect

I’m often impatient, infuriating, and – apparently – annoyingly inquisitive. In my academic life I have had to become engrossed within huge tomes of social, legal, and scientific data, regularly scanning the tedious text for the golden nugget; the bottom line; the epicentre of the empirical data. This is always a systemic slog with my sense of curiosity in constant conflict with my desire to achieve timely certainty.

As a cop I recall the ‘Police Promotions Examination Manual’ (containing both the Sergeants’ & Inspectors’ curriculum), housed in a blue hardback cover resembling a brick, but marginally bigger. This publication was my apex of anxiety, although I guess I used this pain to focus on passing both examinations in a matter of months so that I could wave goodbye to the wretched object. 

Works of fiction frequently fared the same fate. Anything that meandered, plodded, or sought to describe every brick in the wall of the invented scene, was simply discarded. I have lost count of the novels that I started and subsequently shelved by chapter three. I wonder, am I alone in this trait?

In 2014 The Goldfinch, by Donna Tartt, won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction, although, according to research by e-bookseller Kobo, less than half of purchasers actually finished it. If that wasn’t depressing enough, Solomon Northrop’s nineteenth century autobiography Twelve Years a Slave was completed by only a fraction over 28% of readers. I am guessing that the vast majority of cinemagoers remained in their seats when they watched the multi-awarding winning film version. These statistics are brutal, but to be fair, looking over my shoulder at my bookcase, there are books that I haven’t even opened; one remains sealed in its protective cellophane wrap. However, nearly seven years ago something astonishing happened to me – on a plane somewhere over the Atlantic Ocean ─ equidistant from London and my final journey’s end, Tenerife. Travelling alone, and facing an uncharacteristic week by the pool, my daughter Lucy insisted that I take a holiday read with me. Whilst I ignored her advice, she nonetheless placed her suggestion in my carry-on luggage. 

At least the cover was alluring, even though I had never heard of the author. My initial thoughts connected with Peter Kay the comedian. As I commenced the read, in the full knowledge that I would be preparing to land in less than two hours, I thought that I could at least tell Lucy something more about her kind gift than a description of the eery looking lighthouse on the evocative cover. A few pages in and I was hooked! My edginess was eased as the drama unfolded in quick time; any exasperation that this would simply be another piece of unfinished business evaporated, and my curiosity was captured. I held Coffin Road, by Peter May, more firmly than my passport as I negotiated my entry into Tenerife South airport. 

This was my incendiary introduction to The Lewis Trilogy ─ devoured on my return home. This experience was insane and completely out of character, and I felt almost evangelical as I shared my enthusiasm. Perhaps this feeling played – in some part ─ into my criminal justice heritage. Yet, whatever the connection, these were barnstorming reads with captivating characters and a narrative that effortlessly satisfied the oft heralded claim of page turner. The equation was simple, but so effective. The opening bang was followed by the pangs of pacey exploration ─ always tantalisingly out of the reach of definite conviction ─ until the explosive final pages where it all culminated in the most delicious climax. Yet, this commentary doesn’t give credit for the awesome technical and historical accuracy that Peter replicates without being over-powering – even during a post-mortem, and I have been present at a few. Finally, the scene setting is breath-taking. I never thought Stornoway would become a destination of choice.

Demolishing more – for example, The Enzo filesThe Man with No FaceRunaway, and the incredibly contemporary classic Lockdown (I could go on and on) I began to experience a feeling of confusion. Why had this literature lassoed me when hitherto I had expressed a fidgety relationship with reading? What magic did Peter May hold, and what was the secret of his authoring alchemy? There was only one way to conduct my forensic investigation and that would entail an interview with the man himself in the place he now calls home ─ France.

Peter May

Peter, I have shared with you my take on your work ─ what is your secret formula? I wasn’t prepared for the hearty chuckle, nor indeed, the emphatic response – “I don’t have one!” Oh Mr May, don’t be so coy!

“I suppose I’ve never thought of myself so much as a writer – more of a storyteller. Telling stories is one of those primal things.” As he eloquently described active ears from antiquity tuned to the narrative, sat around the fire as the sparks flew into the night, an immediate and powerful landscape was created.

I immediately thought of those wonderful times when – as a junior cop – I listened intently to the older sages recount the often hilarious tales of keeping the peace and catching the wrong ‘uns. How I miss those magical moments.

Peter’s earlier journalistic career introduced him to establishing instant engagement – a skill he honed when he moved into television. “I worked for eight years on a soap opera in Scotland and, with one hundred and forty episodes a year, keeping people engaged was vital. If you didn’t, your ratings would go down.” Peter proudly added, “It was the top-rated show in Scotland with six million viewers on the network during mid-afternoon.” 

Where does your inspiration come from? There was a swift synergy: “I write about things that interest me.” 

“I wrote a series set in China engaging with GMOs (genetically modified organisms) and organ theft – things that fascinate me.” Delving deep into the research Peter has become a subject matter expert.

Disclosing that Stornoway is now – as a direct consequence of my connection with The Lewis Trilogy – a place of preference, I was keen to explore this remote part of the British Isles with Peter. “Stornoway was an unexpected place for me to land. During the nineties my wife – also a writer ─ and I were commissioned by Scottish TV to produce a long running drama in Gaelic, although we didn’t speak the language. The Isle of Lewis was the natural setting.”

Spending five months annually for six years on location, Peter admitted that at the end he had had a belly-full of the adverse weather conditions and hadn’t anticipated returning anytime soon. A decade later he recalled a local story about the Guga hunters and returned to conduct the research for the eventual Lewis Trilogy. “Black House” – a personal favourite of mine and the inaugural tale – was his breakthrough book, albeit in a bizarre way, as Peter explained: “It was universally refused by publishers in Britain and lay in a drawer gathering dust for four years. My French publisher eventually read it, loved it, and wanted the world rights.” Translated into French it became a huge bestseller, and a global phenomenon following its showcasing at the international book fair in Frankfurt. Finally, it became a blockbuster in the United Kingdom, selling around three million copies!

What is the construction chronology of a Peter May novel? “I guess I probably borrow a lot of my approach to writing books from what I learned writing television. In TV you always produce a draft of the script you are going to write. A synopsis – scene, by scene, by scene. Then you write the dialogue and flesh it all out. This is what I do in the books too.”

With the germ of an idea, Peter then engages in the research phase, developing the idea and framing the characters who will populate the story. “I write about twenty to twenty-five thousand words very quickly. I’m not too bothered about the quality at this stage. I just want the story to work. I get up at 6am and write around three thousand words a day. Normally a book will take about seven weeks to write.”

Are any of your characters autobiographical? Smiling broadly, my charming guest admitted, “It has often been claimed that I am Enzo Macleod! When I started to write this series, we were about the same age, and I had a ponytail too. We also dressed similarly and had a dysfunctional relationship with our daughters, but I am no forensic expert!” Peter described how he “borrowed” these technical competencies from a friend of his – a professional within this intriguing scientific discipline. He nonetheless acknowledged that a lot of him went into that character. Arguably much closer to home, Peter recalled once running away.

Runaway was semi-autobiographical. In the sixties me and three other fellas who played in a teenage band ran off to London, leaving notes for our parents on our pillows. In seeking fame and fortune we spent most of the time sleeping rough on the streets, stations, and parks. Busking, we wholly failed to achieve anything except a big pile of laundry, and eventually headed home with our tails between our legs!”

Your forensic and detective skills are impeccable. How have you developed this professional skillset? Whilst quashing any notion that he was a frustrated police officer, Peter added, “To be honest I only became a crime writer by accident. I didn’t set out to write about the subject but once you embark on a genre your publisher and readers want you to do more of the same.”

In common with all his other research Peter emphasised the importance of linking up with subject matter experts. “A character in series one of the Chinese thrillers was an American pathologist and, through a doctor friend of mine who had been the dean of The Davis Medical School in California, I was introduced to a young guy who had recently graduated and was working as a pathologist at the Medical Examiner’s office in Sacramento.”

This relationship with Dr Steve Campman is now in its twenty-fifth year, with Peter paying testimony to being incredibly lucky to have met him. “He instinctively knew what I was looking for in terms of pathology, autopsies, and various aspects of forensics.” The same strategy was employed with the Enzo Macleod stories where Peter formed a close relationship with Mike Baxter a top forensic specialist based in Scotland, using his career background for the lead character. 

Whilst writing one of the Enzo series – based in France ─ he took his courage to new limits, promptly ringing the bell outside a local fortified Gendarmerie and asked to speak to a local law enforcement officer. “Gendarmes aren’t usually that approachable and there was a long silence when I introduced myself as a writer via the intercom, but I met a gift of a character who was very cynical, yet colourful too, providing me with lots of background information.” 

How often have you failed to finish reading a book? If so, why has this happened? “When I was young and had the ambition to become a writer, I read voraciously, nonstop. I read everything and anything I could get my hands on from the first page to the last. Each time it was a journey of discovery for me.” But as the years passed Peter’s patience began to wane.

“Many moons later I’m much pickier in what I read. To be honest, a lot of what I’ve read in recent years is research material, so I don’t have a huge amount of time to read for pleasure. I do give up quite quickly on books if they don’t grab me in the first few pages.”

Peter reflected upon a notion that had always perplexed me too: “Some people say, ‘you should have kept going as by page one hundred it gets quite interesting,’ but that’s a portion of my life I won’t ever get back!” Prompting us both to question ─ why didn’t the writer start on page one hundred then?

As a young aspiring writer, Peter was schooled in the art of catching the reader’s attention in the first sentence, or at the very least, the opening paragraph. As he explained, “People go into a book shop and browse. They pick up a book and might just read the first couple of paragraphs.”

Reflecting upon his own personal favourite ─ One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez – Peter described the opening as the most engaging and extraordinary he’d ever read, although alas the rest of the book didn’t exactly live up to these grand expectations!

“I think it’s incumbent upon you as a writer to try and engage with the reader immediately. We live in an age where people’s attention span is shorter than it used to be because everything is instantaneous.” 

What’s next up? “I had basically retired.” I wasn’t expecting that! Peter continued, “I had turned down a contract from my publishers for a three-book deal. I had spent the last twenty-five years writing – almost a book every year – travelling the world carrying out research and promoting. I was tired and wanted to spend some time with my music, which is one of my other great interests in life, and I wanted to read for pleasure too.” That all changed following COP26 in Glasgow.

“I followed that, and it made me mad! I got so angry about the lack of initiative and decision making by politicians in the face of extreme warnings from the scientific climate community and thought I need to know more about this.”

Peter spent the next three months researching the climate crisis: reading hundreds of articles and reports and viewing hours and hours of video culminating in his desire to write about the subject. But this wasn’t as easy as it may have first appeared, as Peter acknowledged: “I’m a thriller/crime writer and I didn’t want to preach to my readers or bombard them with facts and figures.”

He solved this riddle in the most creative of ways by not writing explicitly about the subject matter but keeping to what he does best – writing a classic crime thriller: A Winter Grave.

A Winter Grave

“It’s set in Scotland thirty years from now in a world which has been fairly radically altered by climate change. The main protagonist is a serving cop in his fifties – and I had a great time writing it! I think it may be the best thing I’ve written in the last ten years!” A new twist with publishers riverrun – partners in crime with, amongst others, Peter’s Hebrides and Enzo novels.

Before I left the company of my favourite author, I had to ask what the future holds? His reply – as I should have expected – left me on a knife edge: “I have absolutely no idea of what I’m going to do – if anything at all!”

As I reflected upon my time with a remarkable man who has significantly influenced my own desire to make sense of things that have puzzled, surprised, and overwhelmed me, I had a couple of short term goals – firstly, to consume the new classic tale – ‘A Winter Grave’ (released on 19th January 2023) and secondly, to check out the next flights to Stornoway. 


© Ian Kirke 2023 / @ianjkirke – uncredited photographs reproduced by kind permission of Peter May.


Thursday 19th January – Hatchards, London

Monday 23rd January – Glasgow

Tuesday 24th January – Inverness 

Wednesday 25th January – Perth

Thursday 26th January

Waterstones Dundee – formal signing at 12 midday – 1pm

Thursday 26th January – Toppings, St Andrews at 7.30pm – event

Friday 27th January – Toppings, Edinburgh at 7pm