Lost in Literature: the Peter May effect




Sorted writer, Ian Kirke, discovers the books of Peter May, then meets the man himself.

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 the purchasers actually finished it. If that wasn’t depressing enough, Solomon Northrop’s 19th century autobiography Twelve Years a Slave was read through to the end by only a fraction over 28% of readers. 

These statistics are brutal, but to be fair, looking over my shoulder at my bookcase, there are books that I haven’t even opened. Most of the rest were shelved without compunction if they didn’t grip me by chapter three. However, nearly seven years ago something astonishing happened to me on a plane somewhere over the Atlantic Ocean. 

As I was a lone traveller, facing a rare week by the pool in Tenerife, my daughter Lucy had insisted that I take a holiday read with me. I had never heard of the author. At least the cover, with its eerie-looking lighthouse, was alluring. A few pages in, and I was hooked. As the drama unfolded in quick time, any suspicion 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 mind-blowing experience led me swiftly on to the Lewis Trilogy, devoured soon after I returned home. These were barnstorming reads with captivating characters and a narrative that effortlessly satisfied the oft-quoted claim of ‘page-turner’. 

Demolishing more – The Enzo files, The Man with No Face, Runaway, and the incredibly contemporary classic Lockdown – 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 find out: an interview with the man himself in the place he now calls home ─ France. 

Photo by kind permission of Peter May

What is your secret formula? 

“I don’t have one! 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.”  

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 140 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? 

“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.”  

“Stornoway was an unexpected place for me to land. During the 90s 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.” 

Photo by Pete Crockett on Unsplash 

Spending five months annually for six years on location, Peter was fed up with the adverse weather conditions. A decade later he recalled a local story about the Guga hunters and returned to conduct the research for the eventual Lewis Trilogy. The Black House – the inaugural tale – was his breakthrough book, albeit in a bizarre way. “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.” It became a global phenomenon, selling around three million copies in the UK. 

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 for 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 20-25,000 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 3,000 words a day. Normally a book will take about seven weeks to write.” 

Are any of your characters autobiographical? 

“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!” 

Runaway was semi-autobiographical. In the 60s 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!” 

The forensic and detective details are impeccably described. How have you developed this professional knowledge? 

“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.” 

Peter emphasised the importance of linking up with experts. “A character in series one of the Chinese thrillers was an American pathologist. Through a doctor friend of mine, 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 25th year. “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 Mike’s career background for the lead character.   

How often have you failed to finish reading a book? And why? 

“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.” 

“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. Some people say, ‘You should have kept going, as by page 100 it gets quite interesting’, but that’s a portion of my life I won’t ever get back!”  

“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.”  

How did A Winter Grave come about? 

“I had basically retired. I had turned down a contract from my publishers for a three-book deal. I had spent the last 25 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 in his desire to write about the subject. But this wasn’t as easy as it may have first appeared. “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 by not writing explicitly about the subject matter, but keeping to what he does best – writing A Winter Grave, a classic crime thriller. A new twist with publishers riverrun – partners in crime with, amongst others, Peter’s Hebrides and Enzo novels.

“It’s set in Scotland 30 years from now, in a world which has been fairly radically altered by climate change. The main protagonist is a serving cop in his 50s – and I had a great time writing it. I think it may be the best thing I’ve written in the last ten years!” 

So what does the future hold? 

“I have absolutely no idea of what I’m going to do – if anything at all!” 

© Ian Kirke 2022

Join Peter May as he discusses A Winter Grave at these events: 

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 

Friday 27th January, 3pm to 4pm – Formal signing, Waterstones Edinburgh (West End)

Ian Kirke

As a kid, and latterly a dad and police officer, I realised that I have an almost endless list of things I want to make sense of. I suspect I am not alone. Hopefully, as a law graduate and post-graduate criminologist, my life observations reflect a degree of authenticity and balance – but I’ll allow you to judge that for yourself. Synthesising humour, grief, horror and hedonism, I think I’m an all-rounder! I am also a frustrated speedway promoter, passionate Notts County fan and part-time philosopher.

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