“The Blackhouse” made Peter May’s reputation. It won the Cezam Prix Littéraire Inter CE for best novel in 2011 and beat “Gone Girl” to the Barry Award for best novel in 2013. It became the first book in the best-selling “Lewis Trilogy”.
All of that passed me by at the time. I first encountered Peter May in his 2016 novel, “Coffin Road”. I was impressed and decided to go back and see for myself what all the fuss over the Lewis Trilogy had been about.
Based on the publisher’s description below, I’d have probably passed this by:
“When a brutal murder on the Isle of Lewis bears the hallmarks of a similar slaying in Edinburgh, police detective Fin Macleod is dispatched north to investigate. But since he himself was raised on Lewis, the investigation also represents a journey home and into his past.”
It sounds like yet another police procedural about a haunted cop and a brutal killer. I was fearing an American cliché with a Scottish accent and a little local colour thrown in to make it folksy. What I got was something quite different and well worth reading.
The book has very little to do with a police procedure and everything to do with Fin Macleod. Fin’s story is told twice, in parallel. Once, in the third person, detailing what Fin, the policeman, does when he returns to Lewis after more than a decade and once, in the first person, detailing Fin’s experiences growing up. Peter May skillfully uses this difference in tenses and time to create a picture of Fin that somehow refuses fully to integrate. I found myself constantly asking: “how did this boy become this man?” The effect extends to other characters who we see both how Fin saw them in his childhood and as the policeman sees them today. The plot actually revolves around finding the missing pieces that will unify these two viewpoints and literally make Fin whole.
The link between memory and identity is key to this story. Fin’s return to the island wakens in him a sense of himself that he has either lost or abandoned. By telling the young Fin’s tale in the first person, May makes the extent of the loss clear. By telling policeman Fin’s tale in the third person, May suggests a distance that may be either objectivity or denial.
The language in the book is rich without being over-blown, like the grain of well-worked wood, adding texture without distracting from the design. The dialogue is convincing and vivid. I particularly liked Fin the Policeman’s confrontation with his boyhood friend, now turned Minister. Finn’s contempt for the God the Minister claims to believe in and his scepticism about the authenticity of his former friend’s conversion from libertine to cleric brought past and present together in a powerful way and shows how far Fin has stepped outside the society that raised him.
One of the main characters in the book is the Isle of Lewis itself. Peter May evokes a very strong sense of place and culture. It is a place that shapes the people who grow up there in the same way that the wind off the Atlantic sculpts the landscape. The culture is dominated by strong Christian beliefs and ancient Celtic traditions. Peter May doesn’t present the landscape or the culture as bright little artefacts, decorating the story; he makes them integral to the people, their behaviour and their sense of self. Fin can only be understood and can only come to understand himself, in the context of this island and its people.
The book is structured to unwrap linked mysteries in the past and the present and is paced to create and sustain a tension that left me needing to reach the denouement while the writing and characterisation are so rich that I didn’t want the novel to end.