Over the Sea to Skye*

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.