My island is a large one, relatively speaking. Ireland by name (population just under five million) but size is not a criterion that counts when one is surrounded by water, and I am an islander. The sound of the sea is never far from my ears and I’m fortunate to live within a short walking distance from its shore. I have an islander’s curiosity about strangers who cross my path and I can be heard exclaiming loudly that Ireland is such a village within the first ten minutes of meeting said strangers when we discover the mutual acquaintances we have in common. This doesn’t always happen, of course, but it’s a regular enough occurrence for me to consider it an essential element of my island mentality.
I’m drawn to books that are set on smaller islands. Be they real or fictitious, islands, especially the remote ones lend themselves to huddled secrets that must battle against the unflinching gaze of small, close-knit communities. Add in the isolation, the rugged scenery, the islander’s strong survival instincts, the ferries and seaplanes, the fishing trawlers, the harbors and hidden inlets, the spats and vendettas that have no outlet, apart from the broiling ocean, and it’s easy to understand why such landscapes bend willingly to the imagination of the writer.
My readings taste is eclectic and I’m not listing my ten island books in any order of preference or genre. All they have in common is that they have carried me over the waves for a brief spell and shown me how crime in its many manifestations can slyly infiltrate the most idyllic environment or storm through a menacing wilderness to expose the terrifying reaches of the mind.
Raven Black, by Ann Cleeves
With her evocative and unflinching Shetland Island series, Ann Cleeves shatters any illusions that crime on an island is any less gritty than the graffiti-streaked, urine-stained laneways of our inner cities. The one crucial difference is expressed by the father of a murdered daughter, who says, “This is Shetland. It’s safe. Everyone knows everyone else.” Well, yes, they do, but that doesn’t mean they are not just as duplicitous, jealous, passionate, treacherous and cruel as their counterpart characters on the mainland, and Jimmy Perez, the tough yet vulnerable police inspector knows this only too well. Raven Black is memorable for its portrayal of the loner Magnus Tait, whose simple-mindedness is cast in an ominous sheen that is open to interpretation, suspicion, judgement. As craggy and weathered as his lonely surroundings, he is ignored by his community until a young woman’s body is discovered in the snow and the search for truth begins. The Shetlands is a deceptively alluring landscape that can change on the whirl of snow, the slant of the sun or the descending mist that hides what should be in plain sight…which is exactly how Ann Cleeves leads her readers into the light.
Shutter Island, by Dennis Lehane
Dennis Lehane’s eerie, mesmerizing novel is set on a fictitious island inspired by the author’s visit when he was a boy to a hospital in Boston Harbor. Sheer cliffs and fanged rocks guard the shoreline of Shutter Island where Ashecliffe, the brooding asylum that houses the criminally insane, is located. An approaching storm will soon cut the essential support systems that link the asylum to the mainland and no one suffers from the illusion that they are safe, especially law enforcement officer Teddy Daniels with his partner Chuck, who are investigating the mysterious disappearance of an inmate. The storm when it comes is a beast that roars with rage, shreds the earth, squeals like a boar, scrabbles, thumps, pants. Is it simply playing itself out against the impenetrable face of the island or does it reflect Teddy’s pulverized memories that are battling against his delusions? I’ve read the book, watched the film. The film ends on an enigmatic note that leaves the viewer wondering if there is a sense that Teddy has some control over his own terrible destiny. The book offers no such relief and is a spell binding journey through the horrors of a mind that has decided the truth is simply too ferocious to endure.
The Light Between Oceans, by M.L. Stedman
If Shutter Island is an assault on my senses, M.L. Stedman’s The Light Between Oceans heads straight for my heart. This is the ultimate island story of isolation, the relentless lashing of the ocean, the shriek of seabirds and the warning refrain from the lighthouse. For Tom Sherbourne, the lighthouse keeper, compiling a meticulous record of his duties, his environment and the workings of his lighthouse is not a problem, especially as it helps him to deal with the trauma of his World War One experience. But things change when he falls in love and Isobel, his wife, arrives to share his isolated life. Their hopes of having children are dashed but an opportunistic crime is committed when a boat drifts onto their shore. It holds the body of a man and a baby, whose cries have drawn Isobel to the edge of the cliff. It seems as if the ocean has offered them a miracle. Set on a fictitious island off the coast of Australia, their crime unobserved, it is easy for Tom and Isobel to convince themselves that they are exempt from the hard hand of the law. Suddenly, gaps appear in the records that Tom once kept so diligently and the moral structures that he upholds begin to bend and break. A fascinating insight into the workings of a lighthouse in the early 1900’s and the randomness of an ocean that brings light and darkness into their lives.
The Watch House, by Bernie McGill
Bernie McGill’s, The Watch House is a spell-binding novel that also captures the essence of a remote island existence towards the end of the nineteenth century. Marconi’s men have arrived on Rathlin Island, off the coast of Ireland, to conduct wireless experiments. A young island woman, married to an aging, loveless man, is soon learning a new language. One that can be transmitted by air through codes, signals and numbers. When she falls in love with one of the young engineers, she learns, also, another language, but one that is forbidden to her. The stark isolation of the island combined with the claustrophobic feeling of a watching, judgmental community is breathtakingly conveyed. When a crime is committed the shock reverberates through those sound waves then falls into silence as the island buries another, desperate secret.
The Last Refuge, by Craig Robertson
The Faroe Islands is the setting for Craig Robertson’s moody thriller, The Last Refuge. Mist, rain, occasional blasts of sunshine, a rowdy, friendly, hard-drinking population who like to party, this is the community that welcomes Scotsman, John Callum, who believes its remoteness can help him to forget his troubled past. What I enjoyed about this location was the sense of history, myth, culture and pride of place the author conjures through his characters, particularly the beautiful and passionate Karis, who has a love/hate relationship with her island home. But this is an island where crime seldom moves beyond a botched robbery or a drunken ruckus outside the local pub and when blood is spilled, then it is obvious where all eyes will turn.
Pig Island, by Mo Hayden
Another island writer to deliver a knock-out punch is Mo Hayden, whose hard-hitting thriller blends superstition, quackery, mind control and much blood-letting. Rumors of devil worship on the remote Pig Island are rife, triggered by the sighting on video of a beast that has surely emerged from the jaws of hell. What begins as a challenge to uncover the truth by journalist and debunker of myths, Joe Oates, soon becomes a battle of wits between him and the nightmarish cult leader, Malachi Dove, surely one of the most grotesque characters to seek sanctuary in the darker reaches of a mysterious, terrifying island location.
Lord of the Flies, by William Golding
It’s many years since I read William Golding’s Lord of the Flies but I’ve never forgotten the power of this chilling novel. A group of British school boys are marooned on a remote island in the Pacific during a World War Two evacuation. What the boys envisage as an adventure that will soon end in a rescue becomes a chilling exploration of how norms can break down when familiar infrastructures are removed. Survival by domination or by consensus becomes the choice as the influences of good and evil rub against each other to mould this small band of boys into their new environment.
Little Black Lies, by Sharon Bolton
The Falklands, that remote archipelago in the South Atlantic Ocean with its tough British roots―which Argentina attempted to occupy in 1982, thus triggering the Falklands War―is the moody setting for Sharon Bolton’s Little Black Lies. The unthinkable happens in this small community when a child goes missing…then another…and another. Told from the perspective of three troubled characters and set in the mid-nineties, this location, so remote and rugged―yet so quintessentially British―creates an interesting juxtaposition and is a vivid portrayal of islanders slowly coming to terms with the war but forced to struggle with the new danger in their midst.
Death is Sardinia, by Marco Vichi
As a good half of the action takes place in Florence, Death is Sardinia by Marco Vichi, the third in the Inspector Bordelli series, creeps slyly into my list of island reads. While the inspector is pursuing the murderer of a notorious money lender through the streets of Florence, his young assistant, Piras, injured in a shootout, is convalescing on his native island of Sardinia. His peace is soon shattered when the body of a close relative is discovered. Death by suicide is the verdict until Piras becomes suspicious and another chase begins. The differing narratives are woven seamlessly together in this enjoyable read but Death in Sardinia is more than a thriller about crime and investigation. Set in the mid-sixties, it is shadowed by Italy’s uneasy history of fascism and Nazi occupation, which is captured through the memories of the characters, who fought in the closing years of World War Two.
The Lighthouse, by P.D. James
The late P.D. James was eighty-five when she wrote The Lighthouse. For this, her 13th Adam Dalgliesh series, she chose a fictitious island off the coast of Cornwall. The Lighthouse follows the classic ‘who done it’ genre. Her murder victim is a well-known and intensely dislikable novelist, who is hung from the topmost railings of the lighthouse. I wonder if she had anyone in mind as she sent him to his untimely death above the rolling waves? As with many island plots, the pressures of living under the exposed gaze of the small society is the trigger for murder and, under the skillful hands of this formidable author, the reasons, though indefensible, are understandable and, even, forgivable.
A well-known crime fiction editor was once heard to remark, “most crime writers feel the need to write an ‘island book’ sooner or later ” and this is just a small sample of those who took on the challenge.