Of late it seems to be the books with a really strong sense of their time or place that hold my attention. I suspect it has something to do with my yearning for a holiday I can’t have just at the moment. Not that I’m sure I would choose to have a holiday on the island of Lewis as depicted in Peter May’s THE BLACKHOUSE. While undoubtedly a spectacular place physically, May has depicted one of those remote settings full of troubled souls that makes this city girl quite comforted by the anonymity and crowds of urban sprawl. But I am a sucker for visiting such places virtually.
It is the story of Finn MacLeod, an Edinburgh-based detective who has just returned to work after a family tragedy. He is sent to the island because a murder there bares a strong resemblance to one he investigated several months ago in the city and as he is from the island originally he is thought (by the police computer system) to be the obvious person to investigate. Finn is ambivalent about the case, wanting to be away from his present circumstances where grief is overwhelming but reluctant to travel to the place he left 18 years earlier which still holds many memories, not all of them pleasant. So it is with a sense of foreboding mixed with curiosity that he – and we readers – set out on our travels.
The murder victim was the school bully of Finn’s childhood and few people have a kind word for the adult he became so there is a plethora of suspects in his brutal murder. But as is the way of things in small communities the secrets must be uncovered slowly and, in this instance, involve Finn re-living his own history of old friendships, a great love and some hazily remembered but significant events. May has created a group of very intense and credible characters for us to get to know over the course of these events: all of them with human frailties and secrets small and large that are revealed compellingly.
The book is told in two intertwining narratives: one a historical one which delves into Finn’s personal history and the recent history of the wider island community. We learn of Finn’s great childhood friendship, which was eventually tested by the girl both boys loved, and about the harsh environment and the ultra religious community. The annual guga hunt, where a dozen local men are selected to go to an off-shore rock to hunt the nesting birds which are a local delicacy, plays a pivotal role in the community and, at least for one year, in Finn’s life though it takes almost the whole book for all the details of this event to unravel.
In the present-day story which follows the investigation it is comparatively easy to see where the story is heading (if you’re a regular crime fiction reader anyway) but because we are meeting many of the people who have been introduced in the historical narrative it remained a compelling story for me. I was thoroughly hooked on wanting to see how the two versions of each character and the village community (which is a character of its own) would be connected.
This is a hard book about which to convey all the reasons I stayed up late into the night to finish it. Suffice it to say that it is a psychological study of an insular society and the lives, choices and actions of its key players. I found it totally engrossing and am looking forward to the second book in what is to be a trilogy. Happily for me a copy of that arrived on my doorstep this very afternoon.
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My rating 4.5/5
Publisher Quercus 
Book Series #1 in a trilogy
Source I bought it
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