One of the ways writers keep the venerable murder mystery tradition going is by choosing exotic settings for their books. Take the popular Louise Penny series, set in an idyllic Quebec village, or the far-from-idyllic Marseille of Jean-Claude Izzo’s books. In the best cases the setting also drives the plot of the novel, and that’s what happens in Peter May’s The Blackhouse. At first this seemed like a standard police procedural air-lifted to a remote Hebridean island. But no, no — the harsh life on Lewis is not mere background. It’s actually the main character of the novel; you might even call it the villain.
Edinburgh detective Fin Macleod, still reeling with grief at the death of his eight-year-old son, returns to work and is assigned to a murder investigation on Lewis, where he grew up. The victim was a childhood friend of his. Well, “friend” probably isn’t the right word for the feral Angel Macritchie. A big, violent bully, he has been strangled and disembowelled and if you are squeamish you will want to skip the post-mortem pages.
But May’s descriptive gift, rich with odors and textures, brings scene after scene to life, especially the climax on An Sgeir, a rock island 50 miles out in the North Atlantic where a select group of men from Lewis go annually to harvest young gannets. The tradition goes back centuries, connecting present and past, as does the book’s plot. Conventional police procedure takes a back seat to Fin’s reluctant reassessment of his childhood and its implications for his future. He is the only one of his contemporaries who managed to leave Lewis and forge a new life in mainland Scotland, and as he revisits old relationships he encounters resentment, affection, respect, and hatred. Naturally the climax of the plot occurs on the island: high drama doled out just when the reader wants it. Grim, but quite an achievement.