Amnesia is a bit of a cliché of the crime and thriller genres. It is a fairly easy way to set up a mystery by having the injured protagonist lose their memory and have to investigate themselves. And so it is with Peter May’s latest thriller Coffin Road. While it works, the idea is old fashioned, and May follows the usual plot beats of an amnesia tale, doing nothing to twist this idea into something new.
The main character wakes up on a beach, soaked through and in danger of hypothermia. A helpful neighbour directs him to a nearby cottage which turns out to be his cottage. It is familiar but does not provide him with any clues as to who he might be. As he starts to uncover something about his life, including an affair with his neighbour’s wife and some hidden beehives in the hills, a body is found on one of the nearby islands and he feels that he might have been responsible.
At the same time, Karen, a rebellious teenager finds out that her dead father might not have committed suicide after all. She sets out to learn the truth about his disappearance. As with the amnesia of the main character, this is a common thriller plot device. And again, the plot beats are fairly easy to predict.
There are a number of aspects of Coffin Road that make it worth the effort. The first is the setting in the Outer Hebrides. The ruggedly beautiful Island of Harris and the nearby Seven Hunters Islands make a spectacular backdrop. Fans of Peter May will be familiar with this area from his Lewis trilogy and it is a welcome return.
The other is the underlying plot. Skullduggery in big agribusiness and big pharma is a fertile area for thriller writers - Coffin Road brings Le Carre’s The Constant Gardener to mind. While delivering a powerful message, May manages to keep the plot central as opposed to polemic, trusting that the premise is scarily plausible and is enough to drive this thriller forward.
While there are plenty of twists and a little bait and switch, the plot strands come together in much the way thriller readers would expect. It is down to May’s skill as a writer that Coffin Road is an engaging, if not particularly original thriller.