There’s an interesting story behind the writing of Peter May’s last book.
Written back in 2005, it was his third manuscript and penned while the author was struggling to get his works published. When he submitted it to his agent, he was told that, while they liked it, the idea of a city-wide lockdown in London during a bird-flu pandemic seemed hopelessly unrealistic. May took the novel, placed it in a drawer and forgot about it for fifteen years.
Then the COVID-19 pandemic began and suddenly the story became depressingly relevant.
That’s not to say Lockdown is a dispiriting read. While there are certainly some harrowing moments – the London featured here is only a few steps away from full on anarchy - what Lockdown is, is a standard murder mystery that happens to be set during the throws of a bird-flu pandemic.
Jack MacNeil is the typical, down on his luck detective that is only 24 hours from taking early retirement from the metropolitan police. He’s estranged from his wife, more so since the pandemic started, and policing London when it’s completely cut off from the rest of the world is like a battle of attrition.
In the opening of the book, however, the discarded bones of a young girl are found at the dig site for a new temporary hospital. As the investigation unfolds, MacNeil begins to unravel a conspiracy far bigger than a simple murder.
If everything we’ve just mentioned sounds desperately rote, you’d be quite correct. There is nothing particularly inspired in terms of the general set up or the paint by numbers cast that populate the story. The dialogue, at times, reads like the dialogue from an 80’s Bruce Willis movie, and even the protagonist’s name, Jack MacNeil, sounds like a parody. It also becomes apparent early on just where the story will lead. Sure, the journey isn’t necessarily the most predictable, but the destination can be seen coming a mile off.
Why then is the novel so entertaining? I had to think about this after I’d finished, mainly because, despite any issues with it, I found myself getting through the story quickly. There is a want to see how things transpire, despite its predictability. You cannot argue that that’s the mark of a good thriller.
But more than that, what Peter May excels at is placing the reader right in the thick of things. I’m sure that’s true of all his thrillers – Lockdown is only the first I’ve read – but he has a canny knack for world building that wouldn’t be out of place if he ever decided to do a Patricia Cornwall and delve into science fiction. You can practically smell the streets of London, recoil at the grime, and hear the overpacked chaos of the overcrowded hospitals.
So, while it doesn’t do anything new, Lockdown is worth a read purely down to its sheer vividness. That may be damning it with faint praise – the story itself is actually incredibly well paced and its third act really is knuckles-in-your-mouth tense – but for what could have been a standard by the numbers thriller is elevated into something that, while no classic, is better than most of the suspense fiction that’s currently saturating the market.