There’s something about small islands. The people who live on them have sometimes been there for generations, so there’s always history there. And since most islands aren’t heavily populated, there’s often a tight-knit sense of community, which can have advantages and disadvantages. Plus there’s often an aura of mystery about islands. So it’s little wonder that so many crime novels take place on small islands. Space doesn’t permit me to mention them all, but here are a few mysterious islands that show up in crime fiction.
In Ellery Queen’s The King is Dead, Inspector Richard Queen gets a surprise visitor. Abel Bendigo has come to request the Queens’ help in a matter involving his brother Kane ‘King.’ King Bendigo owns a hugely successful munitions company that does all of its manufacturing on privately-owned Bendigo Island. Lately, he’s been getting death threats, and his brother wants to find out who is responsible. The munitions business is important to the country’s security, so even the US president has asked the Queens to investigate. When they arrive, the Queens find that the island is shrouded in secrecy, but they start to uncover a few things. Then, there is an attempt on King Bendigo’s life. What’s odd about it is that it’s a ‘locked room’ sort of crime. He was shot (but not killed) while in his hermetically sealed study. There was no gun in the study, and the only people in the room were Bendigo and his wife. As the Queens look into the matter, they find that more than one person had a motive to kill Bendigo, and that the crime is rooted in the past.
One plot thread of Mark Douglas-Home’s The Sea Detective concerns Edinburgh oceanographer Caladh ‘Cal’ McGill’s search for the truth about his family’s past. Years earlier, McGill’s grandfather was lost at sea during a fishing trip. He’s always wanted to know what happened, so he’s decided to pay a visit to Eilean Isagaich Mor, Great Fishing Island, where his grandparents lived. It’s a very insular place, with a long memory and several long-kept secrets. Slowly, McGill finds out the truth about what happened to his grandfather, and how it’s linked to the island. As McGill learns more and more, he also discovers some truths about his family.
Peter May’s Entry Island is the story of a small Canadian island that is part of Québec, although most of the residents have English as their first language. It’s a small community where outsiders are noticed right away. When one of the residents, James Cowall, is murdered, Sergeant Enquêteur Sime Mackenzie of the Sûreté du Québec investigates. This is Mackenzie’s first trip to the island, but he very quickly gets a sense of déjà vu. That feeling gets stronger as he continues investigating. At the same time, he has vivid dreams of stories that his grandmother told of one of his ancestors, also named Sime, who lived in a small Scottish village, and emigrated to Canada in the mid-19th Century. Those dreams, and a journal that the first Simi kept, show how Entry Island is linked to Scotland, and how Mackenzie has a connection to the island that he never knew.
Dennis Lehane’s Shutter Island takes place on a small island off the coast of Massachusetts. Among other things, the island is home to the Ashecliffe Hospital for the Criminally Insane. One of the patients, Rachel Solando, has escaped from the hospital and is now loose on the island. U.S. Marshall Teddy Daniels and his assistant, Chuck Aule, travel to the island to try to find Rachel and return her to the hospital. But it’s not a simple a case as it seems to be. There’s a lot going on in the ward where Rachel lives, and a lot of history at the hospital. The island has its own history, too, which makes it all eerie enough. And then a storm comes up…
Johan Theorin wrote a short series of novels featuring Öland, a small island in the Baltic. Many of the residents make their living by fishing; in fact one of the main characters in the series is retired sea captain Gerlof Davidsson. Among other things, he has a long memory and knows the history of the island. His family’s history is more or less bound up with that of Öland, so as the novels go on, we learn the Davidsson family story as the island’s history unfolds. There are all sorts of secrets connected with different parts of the island. The old houses, the warehouses, the beach, all have stories to tell, and police officer Tilda Davidsson (Gerlof’s granddaughter) finds out many of them as she investigates cases.
And there’s Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows’ The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. It’s 1946 London, and Juliet Ashton is getting some notice as a writer. She’s not at the proverbial top of the tree, but she’s doing well enough. She gets a letter from Dawsey Adams, who lives on Guernsey. In the letter, he explains that he read a book she once owned, a copy of Charles Lamb’s essays. He’d like to read more of Lamb’s work, but there are no bookshops on Guernsey, so he asks for the name of a London bookseller where he might find what he wants. Juliet finds him a book and sends it to him, and the two begin a pen-pal friendship. She learns that Adams is a member of the Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, which meets periodically to discuss books. Little by little, other members write, too, and she develops a network of long-distance friendships. Eventually, she decides to visit Guernsey herself. In the process, she learns a great deal about what happened on the island during the German occupation of WW II. She also learns about a few mysteries and secrets that people on the island have kept. Although this isn’t a crime novel as such, Juliet does do her share of sleuthing, and she does uncover some crimes that have been committed. The novel is an interesting portrait of a small and close-knit group of people who’ve helped each other through some terrible times. It’s also an interesting depiction of life on wartime Guernsey.
Small islands tend to be home to small, tight-knit, even insular communities. That’s part of what makes them effective settings for crime novels. I know I’ve only mentioned a few (right, Ann Cleeves fans?). Which ones have you enjoyed?
ps. The ‘photo isn’t of Skye, I admit. I’ve not (yet) been there. This is a ‘photo of beautiful Devon Island, a short ferry ride from Auckland.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Sir Harold Boulton and Anne Campbelle MacLeod’s The Skye Boat Song.
10 thoughts on “Over the Sea to Skye*”
Nice column, Margot. I was fortunate to visit the island of Kauai many years ago, from which on an isolated beach, I could see the small private island of Ni’ihau. A family friend, Sharon Weber, who owned Discount Tire in Hawai’i at the time, took us to this isolated beach at the edge of pineapple fields on Kauai and told us legends about the private island, Ni’ihau, from the large, unbroken seashells one could find there, to one young man’s attempt to take a speedboat over there and collect shells before he could be discovered, to the mysterious Robinson family reported to own the island. At least that’s what I remember all these years later. Small islands often do convey great mystery!
Thanks for the kind words! Your Kauai trip sounds amazing! And Ni’ihau sounds like a most mysterious place. I think all of those legends and stories are really fascinating, and I’m sure you enjoyed hearing them. It must have been especially intriguing to hear the stories at a time when you could just look across and see the island itself. Now you’re making me curious about that island!
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Some excellent choices there! I loved Entry Island, especially the depiction of the Highland Clearances, and I’ve enjoyed two of Theorin’s Oland Quartet – must get to the other two one of these days! Coincidentally my review tomorrow is of a book set on a fictional Caribbean island, Domino Island by Desmond Bagley, involving the murder of a prominent islander, maybe over politics or maybe over something more personal…
Thank you, FictionFan! I’m very glad you enjoyed the post. You’re right about Entry Island, I think. I have to admit, I don’t know enough about the Clearances; it was good to learn more about them. I felt that May shared some solid information, and yet I didn’t feel it was a case of information overload. It’s great that you’ll be posting about Domino Island tomorrow – great minds, I think! It sounds suspenseful…
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I’ve read both The Sea Detective and Entry Island and loved them both. There’s something special about islands, I think. Kirsty Wark’s The Legacy of Elizabeth Pringle is set on the Isle of Arran – it has a vivid sense of place and of Arran’s history.
I’ve been to Skye – unfortunately it poured down all the time we were there, so I didn’t see it at its best! I’ve read a few novels set on Skye – The Glass Guardian, and Star Gazing both by Linda Gillard with beautiful descriptions of the island, and The Story Keeper, historical fiction set on the Isle of Skye in 1857. I have one more, which I’ve not read yet – Letters from Skye by Jessica Brockmole – a novel told in a series of letters written spanning the years from the First World War to the Second between a poet living on Skye and a fan of hers living in Illinois.
Such lovely novels about Skye, Margaret! Thank you for sharing them. I’d love to visit there myself at some point It’s a shame that you didn’t get to see it at its best; I hope you’ll get the chance to do that some time.
It’s funny you would mention Arran. One of my best friends visited there once and fell in love with the place. I can’t say I was surprised, as it looks absolutely beautiful. I should look into reading The Legacy of Elizabeth Pringle. I’ll bet my friend would enjoy it, too. As you say, there really is something special about islands…
I’ve read and enjoyed a couple of novels by David Owen set in Tasmania with his series character – Pufferfish – Detective Franz Heineken. Worth a look IMO.
Oh, I’m glad you mentioned Tasmania, Col. It’s got a lot of its own history, and there are some good stories set there. I’ll have to check out the Owen novels; they sound interesting – thanks.
When Bob and I went to Long Lake in Maine for a couple days, this mysterious island in the distance captivated me. I envisioned an entire story about that island, so as soon as I got home, I wrote Fractured Lives. 😉 That’s what we do, right?
Oh, yes it is, Sue! I’ve done that with more one experience I’ve had. It’s interesting, too, how just looking at an island can conjure up all sorts of creative story ideas, too. It’s that sort of setting.
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