Friday, January 12, 2018

Peter May’s I’ll Keep You Safe

January is always an ‘interesting’ month, for as a new year commences - we all trudge back to our work, following our Christmas / New Year / Winter holidays.

Cognitively it can be hard to mentally re-adjust after the extended break. For bibliophiles we often look to our reading to keep us safe from the vagaries  [and randomness] of reality with its dark edges - as our thoughts from time to time create existential problems, as we contemplate existence [……as worthy as this all sounds……].

The last few years I have found award-winning novelist Peter May’s writing schedule rather helpful, for he has launched a new work each January. Peter’s writing is elegant, and for me a distraction from existential problems, as his narratives are always deeply layered with insight and compassion that cuts through the darkness, and the gloom that comes packaged with the two faces of Janus.

So it was a delight to join Karen Robinson of The Sunday Times, Jon Coates of The Express, Jake Kerridge of The Telegraph with writer / literary commentators Barry Forshaw and Nick Clee for lunch with Peter May.

Peter May’s latest work “I’ll Keep You Safe” sees a return to the Scottish Islands, like the work he’s most renowned for, The Black House Trilogy, which has garnered many international awards. Reviewers and literary commentators often comment on the evocative nature of the backdrop that May uses; making the location as vivid in the reader’s imagination, as the author’s characters.

As Peter’s new work “I’ll Keep You Safe” is released on 11th January 2018 in the UK and Ireland and on March 16th 2018 in US from Quercus Publishing, we’ll share what readers have in store; to help manage The Two Faces of January.

Husband and wife, Niamh and Ruairidh Macfarlane have come a long way with their cloth company, Ranish Tweed, from their small Hebridean home to the world of high fashion. But on a business trip to Paris, cracks in their relationship start to appear. When Niamh receives an anonymous email informing her of Ruairidh's affair, she is distraught. Only hours later Ruairidh is killed by a car bomb, leaving Niamh’s life in ruins. And when the police declare Niamh as the prime suspect in her husband’s death, her life as she knows it ceases to exist.  When Niamh is allowed back to her home on the Isle of Lewis to return her husband's remains, she is followed by French detective, Sylvie Braque. As Braque digs deeper into the couple’s relationship and Niamh replays her life with Ruiairidh, distant memories resurface and past feuds are reignited. As the past and present move closer together the two women find themselves drawn to a killer who will not back down.

We should point out the novel contains a very useful glossary of Celtic / Gaelic pronunciation to assist the reader.

Peter’s readers will be familiar with the high level of research that goes into his work, as well as how prescient much of his imagination is, and he kindly provided some background to his latest work –

In relation to the criminal element of the story, I explored the so-called Dark Web.  This is the flip side of the internet we all know and use.  It is where you will find society’s creepy-crawlies when you take a peek into the shadows that lurk beneath. The Dark Web, however, is not really that dark.  It is a collection of publicly visible websites that hide the IP addresses of their servers.  Anyone with a modicum of IT know-how can access it by downloading a special anonymity browser called Tor.  Suddenly you have access to sites selling illegal goods and services in secure anonymity - child pornography, weapons, drugs, and the services of hitmen.  Payment is made, again anonymously, with the use of Bitcoins whose derivation and destination are untraceable.  Who knew it was that easy?

I delved into the world of ground-breaking forensic technology, where newly developed techniques allow investigators to recover fingerprints from bomb-blasted particles.  Previously both criminals and investigators believed fingerprints were obliterated by bomb blasts.  That was indeed the case with conventional fingerprints.  It meant that bomb-makers were unconcerned about leaving fingerprints, on the basis they would be destroyed anyway.  However, a new type of fingerprint has recently been discovered.  It is left by the oily residue of the fingers which when exposed to extreme heat reacts chemically with metal, effectively etching itself invisibly into the casing of a bomb. Undetectable by conventional procedures, these fingerprints can now be recovered by applying a powerful electrostatic charge to the piece under examination, then dusting it with a fine carbon powder.  And bingo!  There is the fingerprint which had previously been so undetectable.

Ruairidh’s death in a car explosion means there is very little of him left to repatriate for burial.  I wanted to explore the practicalities of this.  A consultation with my pathology adviser, Dr. Steve Campman, introduced me to the complex set of international rules and regulations that govern the transportation of human remains by commercial airlines.  What was left - a limited number of pieces of charred flesh and bone - would be vacuum sealed in plastic bags following examination by a pathologist.  A State-approved undertaker would supply the requisite paperwork once he had sealed the bags in a leakproof container. Only then would an airline accept the remains for transportation. These are the awful practical mundanities in the aftermath of such a death, and I thought it was important for Niamh to be seen dealing with the shock of them.  There was also the question of burial when the box was flown back to the island.  The French investigators would not allow it, but also there are no crematoria in the Outer Hebrides. So I went to visit the only funeral director on the Isle of Lewis, Alasdair Macrae. He suggested the tiny coffin containing Ruairidh’s remains would be placed within a normal-sized coffin and braced to prevent movement when the bearers carried it to the grave. I was also keen to respect island tradition in my portrayal of the burial itself.  When I first went to the islands nearly thirty years ago, women did not go to the graveside and usually they would not even take part in the procession.  However, I was fortunate on the day I went to the cemetery at Dalmore Bay on the west coast of Lewis - where the burial was to take place in the book - there was an actual funeral in progress.  I witnessed a rare occasion, where the female mourners led the procession to the graveside carrying flowers, while the men followed on with the coffin. It was perfect for the circumstances of the burial that I planned to write, allowing me to break with island conventions describing events at the cemetery.  I watched with fascination as the male mourners then picked up shovels to fill in the grave themselves.

My research took me to numerous island locations, including the home of Harris Tweed Hebrides at their Shawbost Mill; the independent mill at Carloway, only recently rescued from closure; the Grimersta Estate, with its impressive fishing lodge and complex water system. And of course the impressive Scottish baronial castle at Amhuinnsuidhe on the Isle of Harris, where I stayed overnight to absorb its distinctive and rarified atmosphere. On my final day on the Isle of Lewis I visited a legendary location; a stone bothy built into the cliffs of Mangersta, on the south-west of the island, by the parents of aid worker Linda Norgrove who was kidnapped by the Taliban in Afghanistan, and died during a failed rescue attempt by US forces. The bothy rests perilously on a ledge just below the top of towering cliffs of granite and gneiss that are hundreds of feet high, standing resolute against the relentless assault of the Atlantic.

My location research also took me to Paris, around the Place de la République, where only fifteen months earlier terrorists had rampaged through boulevards and alleyways.  The aftermath of those attacks were still very much evident in the nightly gathering of armed police and vehicles along one side of the square. I also visited the world famous Paris cemetery, Père Lachaise, where I had the unsettling experience of coming across a full-sized bronze figure on the grave of French journalist, Victor Noir, who was shot dead in 1870 by Prince Pierre Bonaparte, the great nephew of Napoleon. The reason I found it so unsettling was that the face of this figure was the spitting image of myself as a young man.

In a search for authenticity I conducted in depth interviews.  I had long conversations with the young island entrepreneur, Iain Finlay Macleod, whose Breanish Tweed became the inspiration for my fictitious Ranish Tweed. Gaelic actor and broadcaster, Derek Murray, showed me the arcane world of teenage island boys who, by tradition, steal the gates of their neighbours on Halloween.  I also journeyed across the sodden moorland of north-east Lewis to the remote ruins of a house and church built by a pioneering baptist called John Nicholson.  I picked this as a crucial location in the book, where the denouement is played out on its storm-lashed cliffs.  The ruins of Nicholson’s house are also the basis for the book’s iconic cover image.

In closing it is worth noting Harris Tweed is the only cloth in the world to be defined by Act of Parliament, and is described in the 1993 Act passed by the Houses of Parliament in London, as “handwoven by islanders at their homes in the Outer Hebrides, finished in the Outer Hebrides, and made from pure virgin wool dyed and spun in the Outer Hebrides”. All Harris Tweed must also be examined by an inspector from the Harris Tweed Authority, and stamped with the famous cross and orb once it is established it has met all legal criteria and standards of quality. Through my connections with Harris Tweed Hebrides, I gained access to Première Vision, the twice-yearly fabric fair in Paris. Thousands of stalls are enclosed by lit plastic walls arranged in rows that criss-cross, in the giant exhibition halls of the Parc d’Exposition. This vast fair has cloth-makers from all over the world exhibiting their fabrics for designers and manufacturers ahead of the seasonal fashion shows which will determine what some people will be wearing in the spring or the autumn.

And remember Peter May commences the Promotional Tour shortly, and as he is a most amusing raconteur, so we urge you to attend one of his events, not only to grab a copy of his latest novel, but also to gain some insight into this author and listen to his tales.

The Full Tour details are available by Clicking Here

I enjoyed finding myself at lunch with Peter May and my bibliophile colleagues, who like Peter have many amusing asides with anecdotes and reflections which are life affirming when confronted by Janus. All of us are journalists, writers, commentators – and so with a glass of wine in hand, there was much mirth over a fine lunch.

Though Barry Forshaw made us all laugh like Hyenas when the topic of deadlines came up, something that as writers we all fear. As apart from Peter May’s latest work, Barry Forshaw has his Historical Noir coming shortly as does Bookbrunch’s Nic Clee look at the literary award process.

More information about the work of Peter May CLICK HERE

More information about “The Booker and the Best” by Nicholas Clee CLICK HERE

More Information about “Historical Noir” by Barry Forshaw CLICK HERE

So after thanking Jon Riley Publisher, and Hannah Robinson Publicist [Quercus Publishing], and of course Sophie Ransom for an excellent lunch, where the laughter was as infectious as Peter May’s anecdotes – we all headed back into a chilly London; but were all energised, as only the company and laughter of Bibliophiles / Raconteurs can provide when there are bottles of wine.

Clutching my copy of Peter May’s “I’ll Keep You Safe” – suddenly The Two Faces of Janus / January didn’t feel as depressing as it did when the alarm clock sounded on the 2nd of January.

You can get a copy at a heavy discount from this link from the Book Depository, with free delivery worldwide.

Photos © 2018 A Karim [and Nicholas Clee]