Even before I finished Peter May's The Blackhouse, the first in a trilogy of books set on the Isle of Lewis off the northern coast of Scotland, I knew I wouldn't be able to wait until the next book was published here in the US. The Lewis Man is already jetting its way to me from across the Atlantic even as I type this post. The Blackhouse is an exceptionally well done crime novel where setting and story come together in all the right ways. Crime novels are often all about the plot, but in this case the plot and the personal, as in the personal lives of the characters, are tightly intermingled. The dark, broody cover illustration captures perfectly the feel of the story--forbidding and atmospheric. And while the pacing may not be edge of your seat in a traditional crime novel way, I found it to be almost unbearably suspenseful. That must sound strange (how can a novel do something and not do something at the same time). Let me explain.
The Isle of Lewis, and I had to stop and look it up to see if it was indeed a real place or fictional--it's part of the Hebrides and just Google the name and look at the amazing images, is almost a character in its own right. It's where Edinburgh detective Fin Macleod grew up in the 1970s and where he couldn't wait to escape from. As a matter of fact once he left he never returned until he's called in on a murder case that bears resemblance to a crime that he worked on and never solved in Edinburgh. Fin is battling demons of his own after the death of his young son Robbie. His marriage is in tatters, he's studying computers through the Open University in hopes he might make a career change (having become a policeman as he failed at his studies), and he's barely getting through the days. The last thing he wants or needs is to return to the Isle of Lewis where he's haunted by bleak and unhappy memories of his childhood.
Fin Macleod was Fionnlagh Macleoid as a child. Until he began school he spoke Gaelic exclusively at home, and was the object of much ridicule by his English speaking classmates. It took a surly letter, the contents he never knew, written by the schoolmistress to his parents before he took to English. And it's his Gaelic-speaking abilities that his superiors take note of in choosing him to liaise with the detectives on the island. He's confronted with a wall of silence when he returns to the island. The dead man was one of his own contemporaries, a schoolmate, who was a bully as a child and carried with him the same qualities as an adult. There are few who mourn his death, but investigating it opens a pandora's box of memories for Fin.
As Fin delves into the case he discovers that events of his childhood and youth are inextricably linked with the murder. Petty jealousies and old animosities have been left to simmer for half a lifetime, and the more questions he asks the more his memories come to the fore. Most burdensome is his memory of the summer before he left the island when he was one of a group of men who went on the annual guga hunt, an ancient tradition where two thousand birds are slaughtered, a delicacy found nowhere else in the world. For nearly two weeks the men would live on the small island in the middle of the north Atlantic, under the most inhospitable of conditions. It was a tradition Fin didn't want to take part in, but had no choice, and it was a year that ended in tragedy.
May is telling two stories, but they are woven seamlessly together. The murder investigation is written in third person, but when Fin's memories come in flashback, he is the teller of those memories and the narrative switches to first person. I didn't even realize it was happening at first, so tightly controlled does it all feel. The plot moves along at a nice clip, even the sections that move backwards in time. What made it unbearably suspenseful were the bits set on the smaller island during the annual guga hunt. Not only am I averse to hunting scenes, but the feeling of impending doom pressed down on me as I was reading. I don't mean to imply this as a criticism, only the story was so taut at these sections I felt like something awful was sure to happen. May's The Blackhouse is the best sort of crime novel--well written, carefully plotted with interesting and well developed characters. And hard to put down.
I see Peter May has written two other mystery series as well as a number of standalone novels, which I may have to explore at some point. I'm just hoping The Lewis Man arrives before my winter break when I will have lots of uninterrupted reading time to fill.
Edited: Thanks to Cornflower for the heads up on some posts appearing on her blogs--she has traveled to the Isle of Lewis, so you can see the beauty of the island: Blackhouses, Isle of Lewis souvenirs from her travels, the Loch. It looks like such an amazing place! You can read Cornflower's thoughts on The Blackhouse here, too.