Coffin Road, by Peter May
The scenario of a protagonist waking up, in a state of some jeopardy, either current or recent, with no knowledge of his or her identity or the chain of events which has precipitated the current situation, cannot be unique to this book, but it is a refreshing change; and, of course, the misdirection can be laid out right at the beginning, a fog (both literal & figurative) which the protagonist and, implicitly, the reader, has to penetrate to unravel the mystery of why he; in this case, a man; came to be washed up on a beach somewhere with total amnesia. The Coffin Road of the title is an ancient way which was taken across the Isle of Harris for burial rites, because the east side of the island was too rocky for burials, so the body had to be carried across to the western side, where the natural soil was more accommodating. The reason for this road being used as the name of the book is not immediately clear, but suffice to say that the road is significant to the story.
The man doesn’t discover his true name until well into the story so, up until that point, he only has the information he has gleaned from the people in his immediate vicinity to go on and, although they seem plausible enough on the surface, it takes a while to discover that some of them might be deceiving him, but why? Ostensibly, the man is writing a book about the mystery of the missing lighthouse keepers of Eilean Mòr (Gaelic for big island), who went missing without trace in December 1900, almost exactly one year after the light was first lit on the largest of the seven Flannan Isles; at the outset, he has no knowledge of how he came to be doing this, but when he reads a booklet about it in the cottage he is renting for the duration, he is instantly gripped by the story. He is aided & abetted, to some extent, by an attractive (of course!) young woman, apparently the wife of an academic taking a year out with her in this beautiful, but rugged, location; the unnamed man is also having an illicit liaison with this woman, and he sees no reason initially to question this, for a variety of reasons!
Unfortunately for the man, who is apparently a sailor of some expertise, there is a dead body at the location he is given to understand was the last place he visited before his accident, so to add to his current confusion, he also has the terrible foreboding that he might have been responsible for this murder. Into this mix, but separately at first, is thrown a teenage girl in Edinburgh, who is trying to discover the truth about her father’s suicide because, although all the information available to her points to this being the case, she can’t accept that he would abandon her, given that she knows how much he lover her; unfortunately, she is riven with guilt, because the last time they parted, she told him that she hated him.
Although this might seem like a pretty conventional thriller, before long the real message of the story becomes apparent: there is an environmental catastrophe on the horizon; getting closer by the day, in fact; and this book is the vehicle for this message, so I am very happy to share it. Of course, most of the educated world is aware of the issue, but the problem that needs to be addressed is the cavalier, money-driven attitude of the agrochemical industry, especially given the vast potential profits that can be made from the products of this industry: so how can this real threat be alleviated, if not removed completely? I know nothing about this author, but he has produced at least seventeen books, one of which is non-fiction, so he is clearly a well-established writer, and I will certainly keep a look out for his work in future. Coffin Road was published in 2016 by riverrun, an imprint of Quercus Editions Ltd., London, in paperback, ISBN 978-1-78429-313-0.