Wednesday, February 6, 2013

The Blackhouse

More like the BLEAK house, apologies to Chas. Dickens.  At least, that was my first reaction and it took me three - three! - tries to get into this book.  Now that I've finished, I'm glad I stuck with it and you will be too.  Not quite Dickensian in scope or language or character development, or really anything, but a reluctantly gripping story nonetheless. 

Peter May is highly lauded on the mystery and crime blogs, so when I read that The Blackhouse (Quercus, 2011), was available Stateside, I thought I should give it a try.  The blogs tell me that this is the first in a strong series based on Scotland's remote Isle of Lewis, in the Outer Hebrides.  I don't know what I expected, but the opening scene, in which two teenagers trying to get it on discover a gruesomely dismembered body, was so depressing that I just put the book down.  It wasn't the murder, it was the lack of hope and opportunity and the desperate attempts at teenage coupling in a sad quay-side warehouse that just made me want to run away. 

A few weeks later I tried again. The body's been discovered, I reasoned, presumably we move on to the adults.  Yes . . . we do meet Our Hero, Fin Macleod, but we quickly discover that he and his wife are in a pretty bad state, mourning the recent death of their eight-year-old son in a hit-and-run car accident.  Kid-trauma, yeah, book closed a second time. 

Curiously - and unusually - NOT gripped by Philip Kerr's latest, Field Grey, I figured I'd give ol' Fin and his troubles one more try.  This time I was hooked, fought it a bit, but finally reeled in. 

Fin Macleod, Lewis native but current resident of Edinburgh, is sent back to the island to investigate the murder of a former acquaintance because the M.O. is suspiciously similar to a murder he's been investigating in Edinburgh.  It turns out that while Fin has only been back to Lewis once in the past 18 years, his roots there are deep and complicated.  He's moved on while most of his erstwhile acquaintances have cleaved closer to the austere, god-fearing, traditional life of the island.  The church dominates all, and while the traditional livelihoods of fishing, weaving, and crofting survive, they aren't as lucrative as they once were and many men work in the offshore oil or other small, barely surviving industries.  They're generally depressed, but it's what they know, and they make the best of it.  Fin got out, as it were, but it's clear that he isn't happy and therein lies our tale.

The unraveling of the murder takes place in installments, alternating with episodes from Fin's past, each one progressively more dramatic and revealing yet another aspect of life on Lewis, as well as key bits in the lives of the victim and others connected to him and to Fin.  These start in Fin's childhood, and while I found them a bit tedious at the start - clearly bad things were going to happen, but did I have the stamina to get through all 475 pages to find out? - well, they grew on me.  The best one concerns the annual guga hunt, a real event that actually takes place on Lewis.  Every year, a group of men from the island spent two weeks harvesting gannet chicks from an uninhabitable rock miles out in the ocean, called An Sgeir.  The chicks are taken from nests, beheaded, processed, then preserved in salt, and are considered a local delicacy.  The hunt commemorates a famine a few centuries earlier when the men from the island saved themselves by going to the rock, as it is known, for the fowl.  It's brutally hard work, dangerous, and steeped in tradition.  The description of Fin's one and only hunt is magnificent, and makes a spectacular centerpiece to the story. 

What's a blackhouse?  An older, stone dwelling, used by the local population for housing themselves and their beasts, before they started building the whitewashed houses that we see as more characteristic today of the area.  The dramatic climax of the story takes place in one on An Sgeir. 

The writing here is fine - nothing special, but not at all distracting either, and given the complexity of the plot, that is a real accomplishment.  That you don't ever feel confused or need to look back to figure out what is going on is a real testament to May's dexterous handling of the many past and present plot threads.  I'd place The Blackhouse squarely in the bleak-northern-UK category of Anne Cleeves, but better.  Less angst on the part of Our Hero (at least, for most of the story) and the love interest is treated pretty lightly which I like.  Like Cleeves, the setting is a star - the dramatic landscape, foul weather alternating with sun, and the omnipresent sea.  It's clear that deep research, carefully deployed, is a hallmark of May's work.  A prolific writer, May has a series set in China, and apparently is the only westerner to be made an honorary member of the Chinese Crime Writer's Association.  I look forward to delving deeper into his oeuvre.


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