Book Review: The Blackhouse by Peter May

Posted July 31, 2014 by Kathy Davie in Book Reviews / 0 Comments

Book Review: The Blackhouse by Peter MayThe Blackhouse by Peter May
Genres: Mystery
Published by Quercus on February 1, 2011
Pages: 386
Format: eARC
Source: Netgalley


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.

First in the Lewis Trilogy mystery series and revolving around Fin McLeod, a conflicted man.

The Blackhouse won the Barry Award for Best Novel in 2013.

My thanks to NetGalley and Quercus Books for providing this ARC for my enjoyment.

My Take
Oh. Wow. In so many ways, this was depressing as hell although I only cried a few times, and yet if you enjoy a good mystery in a desolate area where everyone knows your business, if you’re interested in families, the past, traditions, this one’s for you.

Just know that once you start The Blackhouse, it’ll be hard to put down. It’s an easily followed back-and-forth as May takes you back in time as Fin remembers his past before we swing back to his present and the case he’s investigating. As he sees his past with the perspective of an adult. It’s a past that revolves around his best friend, Artair, and the girl who loved him, Marsaili. It’s also one that revolves around Fin’s loss of memory. A loss that will devastate him and those around him.

May is also excellent at telling us nothing! Arghhh, he just dribbles out bits and pieces, slowly filling in the pieces that will tie it together, building the story. They’re pieces that show us the life of a young person from child to teen in a place like the Isle of Lewis, not much different from any town, city, or village, but with less chance of making something of themselves.

The people most important in Fin’s life are an assorted lot. The wife who’s a major pain and doesn’t know what she wants. Well, let’s just say I’m curious to know what Fin will find when he gets home again. His aunt sounds awful if dutiful. Marsili and his first exposure to young love and jealousy. His parents: Fin’s dad sounds like a great dad. Instead of moping about when he’s laid off, he takes his son out beachcombing. Sure, it was for a practical reason, but he was still spending time with his son. I sure enjoyed the idea of how useful all that scrounging was! His mother sounds beautiful as well.

I like what Fin says about him:

“It wasn’t what he wanted [the job he works], but I never heard him complain about it. He always told us we had a good life. And he crammed most of it into all those hours he wasn’t working at the yard.”

It made me angry that Fin wasn’t allowed his Gaelic in school; I like that it came back in vogue later.

“It was extraordinary to think that a place so hostile and exposed could play host to so much life.”

It’s that visit to Calum that puts a new light on Angus, and finally makes me feel sorrow for his death.

The niggles. I suspect the prologue is the discovery, but we never hear any more about the couple who discovers the body. There’s no time reference. What was the point of midnight being a critical time with the Sabbath so close? Is it that it is the Sabbath and what we learn much later in the book about how revered a day it is? Why would the shieling evoke bad memories? Unless it was for what he had lost…? That too-sudden segue of Fin’s when he imagines what happens in the boatshed was poorly done. It needed a segue, something that tells the reader this is Fin imagining what happened.

Fin may have been a right arse as a kid, but I do like that he can see his mistakes and acknowledge them now. And that ending…well, May leaves you with the big question you really don’t want an answer to.

I have got to read The Lewis Man, which is next up in this series.

The Story
It’s do or die time. No more time off for mourning, and DCI Black and HOLMES is sending Fin home. Home to investigate a murder that is similar to that of John Sievewright, the one Fin was in charge of in Edinburgh.

It’s an old home week Fin has been avoiding for the past eighteen years, for there’s too much at home he’s been wanting to blot from his memory. A girl, a woman now, he’d been in love with. Who’d been in love with him. Friends who’ve suffered great losses, partly due to him. His own great losses.

The Characters
Detective Fionnlagh “Fin” McLeod is a policeman, a career chosen after he screwed up university. He’s finally working to make up for this by studying at the Open University. He’s married to Mona, and they’ve just lost their eight-year-old son, Robbie. And his dreams are back. His parents, John and Helen, died when he was 8, and his aunt, Iseabal Marr, raised him. Morag was a second cousin and very efficient.

Detective Chief Inspector (DCI) Black is his boss in Edinburgh with an ultimatum.

Crobost is where Fin grew up, a tiny village up in the Isle of Lewis. DS George Gunn will be Fin’s “partner” in today’s Crobost as they investigate Angel’s murder. DCI Tom Smith is the man in charge and very unhappy that he’s been saddled with Finn. Professor Angus Wilson is the pathologist who did the post mortem on the murder victim in Edinburgh. He’s an abrasive old coot. But at least he’s a positive character, unlike Smith.

Artair Macinnes was Fin’s best friend and neighbor, although their parents were never really friends. Too much of a class difference. His mother was a nonentity while his father was alive; now she makes herself the center of his life, his “imprisonment” on the island. Marsaili “Marjorie” Morrison spent her childhood on Mealanais Farm and has an English mother. She gives Fin the name he’ll live by. She has a son, Fionnlagh.

Donald Murray was the wild minister’s son who stood against bullies and for what he believed in. Now he’s the Reverend Donald Murray with a wife, Catriona Macfarlane, and sixteen-year-old daughter, Donna. His dad was the Reverend Coinneach Murray of the Crobost Free Church.

Angus “Angel” Macritchie was at school with Fin and a bully to all; his younger brother Murdo Macritchie, a.k.a., Murdo Ruadh, was just as bad.

Other classmates include Iain, Seonaidh, and the easily bullied Calum Macdonald, who has his own very sad tale of life. He’s a big man in very many ways once he’s an adult. Maid Anna is the tease who caused Calum to lose his commonsense. Irene Davis is an example of how much Fin forgot. Anita was Marsaili’s last straw.

Gigs MacAulay is the leader of the An Sgeir hunt. Other members then include Donnie, Pluto, Malcolm, Seumas, Angel, Mr. Macinnes — Fin and Artair went on their first trip that momentous time eighteen years ago — and now, Asterix. Padraig MacBean is the captain of the Purple Isle that takes the team out to An Sgeir; Duncan, his younger brother, is his first mate; and, Archie is the other member of the crew.

Eachan Stewart is a hippie-ish potter who is a witness for Angus, twice. Uilleam and Ceit discover the body. Mrs. Mackay was Fin and Artair’s first teacher; she insisted on an English-only class. Language and names. Chris Adams is an animal rights campaigner with Allies for Animals who caught Angus’ eye. That comment Fin makes to him about fish versus guga cracked me up.

Suainaval Lodge is owned by Sir John Woolridge, and he charges fishing parties for the right to fish for salmon. Big Kenny is caretaker when he’s not running his sheep. James Minto is the ex-SAS who prevents poaching.

Blackhouses were the original homes of dry-stone walls and thatched roofs while the whitehouses replaced the blackhouses and were made of stone or concrete block with tin, slate, or tarred felt roofs. Guga is “a Gaelic word for a young gannet.

The Cover
The cover is a lonely blackhouse in the middle of nowhere, a lone tree bent from the wind with a stormy sea of clouds overhead.

The title is the shelter the men use when they head out to hunt the guga, The Blackhouse, where so much is revealed.

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