This blog recently visited St Kilda, courtesy of Karin Altenburg’s Orange longlisted, Island of Wings. With Books 1 and 2 of Peter May’s The Lewis Trilogy, it is time to embark on a tour of Hebridean islands that remain inhabited.
The journey begins as the name of the trilogy suggests, on Lewis, the island to which Edinburgh-based detective Fin Macleod is returning after a 20 year absence to investigate the grisly murder of Angel McCritchie. Fin is brought in as the modus operandi matches that of an earlier murder in Edinburgh. He has mixed feelings about this. First it is a welcome respite – a change of scenery from his marriage which is falling apart after his son’s death in an unsolved hit and run accident. There is also irony in the fact that he is investigating the death of a man he despises, the childhood bully who made everyone’s life a misery. Thirdly, he is returning to face the consequences of a love triangle that actually began on his first day at school ……
Once on the island Fin is understandably assailed with memories from his childhood, adolescence and “escape” when he left the island to attend university; memories which, it has to be said, don’t always reflect on him kindly. They also vividly depict the cruelties of childhood, the harsh realities of island life and important elements of its culture. Central to the plot is the annual (and environmentally controversial) guga hunt on the remote island of Sula Sgeir (An Sgeir in the novel), and the two set-pieces on that island, one in the past, and one in the present are magnificent. (As indeed are these pictures of the guga hunt .)The stories of Fin’s past, his present day entanglements and the murder investigation are woven around each other until they blend seemlessly into the climactic finale on An Sgeir. Only one minor fault for me – I didn’t entirely buy into the motivation of the killer. (Q: Would someone really wait that long?). But that is a minor quibble. The Blackhouse is an atmospheric and engaging read. An unusual crime novel with a final sentence that left a lump in my throat.
The Lewis Man picks up Fin’s life, where The Blackhouse left it. Following his divorce, he resigns from the Edinburgh constabulary and returns to the Isle of Lewis to restore his dead parent’s now dilapidated house. It’s never quite certain whether he and Marsaili will reignite their love affair, but it’s clear that Fin’s future is bound up with her and her son, Fionnlagh. When The Lewis Man, a corpse discovered in the peat bog, is found to have been buried there for just over 50 years and to be related to Marsaili’s father (thanks to the DNA sampling that took place during The Blackhouse investigation), Fin finds himself rushing to solve the mystery before the police arrive to arrest his former sweetheart’s father as prime suspect. Fin can’t simply ask Tordod MacDonald for an explanation. The old man has just been admitted to a care home suffering from dementia.
Once again May employs dual narratives. The contemporary investigation runs parallel to the first person narrative of the old man, struggling to deal with his change of circumstance and the loss of his short-term memory while memories from long ago emerge with astonishing clarity. The pacing is tricky but masterful as May ensures Fin makes no progress beyond what MacDonald’s memories have already revealed. The engaging and sometimes shocking nature of the old man’s memory, however, means this has no adverse effect on the page-turning quality of the novel at all.
May has set out to chronicle a way of life before it is lost forever and so the geography of the islands and their culture are as critical to the development of the second novel as they are in the first. Fin journeys this time from north to south, down from Ness on the Isle of Lewis, through the Isle of Harris, Benbecula, North and South Uist and onto the Island of Eriskay. The novel incorporates short but vivid descriptions of the ever-changing landscape and light - much of the latter precipitated by Atlantic storms and frequent horizontal rain, in which men without their waterproofs transform into drowned rats in seconds. (This is a realistic, not a romanticised portrait.) On Eriskay Tormod MacDonald’s real identity begins to emerge with sight of the silver sands of Prince Charlie’s Beach and the identification of the pattern of the blanket in which the dead man was wrapped. With that though comes real danger as past meets present in explosive fashion.
(As an aside I was delighted with the centre-stage moment of my favourite character, the irascible Reverend Donald Murray.)
Though I can’t help but worry about the aftermath. How will the already fragile Marsaili cope? Will Donald find the forgiveness he seeks? How long do I have to wait for the publication of the final episode in this trilogy, The Chessmen? How on earth will I endure the wait?