Peter May’s Lewis Trilogy consists of The Blackhouse, The Lewis Man, and The Chessmen. Based a couple of reviews I had tentative expectations of enjoying May’s protagonist, Fin Macleod, when I set out to read all three in February.
Already I’m stretching my rules for this blog by including detectives from trilogies, but I was getting more and more dismayed, picking up and tossing aside at least a couple of dozen books by writers supposedly ‘better than Stieg Larsson,’ so the prospect of finding at least a well-written trilogy had some appeal, particularly since Peter May has other series under his belt. If I liked The Lewis Trilogy, I might be able to add a few more ‘moody sleuths’ to my list.
So, how did it go? Well, like tuppencecowley in the blog Kill Your Characters, I’m conflicted. The Blackhouse caught me up immediately: the writing, the setting, the plot, the burgeoning promise of a worthy ‘moody sleuth.’ I found it so compelling I had to force myself to slow down, to give myself time to take it in, not just race through to the end. Peter May is that good a writer…
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
The Blackhouse by Peter May
The Blackhouse has almost all the right components: Edinburgh Detective Fin Macleod has recently lost his young son to a hit-and-run, his marriage is as good as over, and his boss has ordered him back to work, assigning him to a murder case that takes him to the Isle of Lewis, a place he left twenty years ago, hoping never to return. Fin Macleod remembers the murdered man as the schoolyard bully, and also suspects that more than one of the possible suspects will be old schoolmates.
The narrative alternates between the present-day murder mystery, told in third person, and Fin Macleod’s youthful memories, told in first person. Though I’ve noted that several reviewers take issue with the author’s use of two points of view, I found that it works very well, eliminating the confusion as to where we are in time. I also feel it brings Fin closer to the reader, hearing him tell his own story, in particular his adult commentary on his youthful actions. Without these first person flashback portions, Fin MacLeod’s character would seem woefully thin.
But I’m not here to tell you the story. I’d like to be commenting on Fin Macleod’s character and Peter May’s development there-of, but instead I find myself trying to understand how, or maybe rationalize why, an otherwise exceptional writer would commit a literary sin like Peter May does in the last chapter of The Blackhouse. To call it a ‘plot twist’ would be too kind; what it did was call into question my up-to-that-moment assessment of the book. I even back-tracked, looking for fore-shadowing, found two iffy instances that hint at ‘something else’ but could in no way be considered useable clues.
Finale complaints aside, I suppose I have to begrudgingly agree with Mike Stafford’s review on Bookgeeks blog, that Peter May’s The Blackhouse introduces us to ‘a complex and traumatized detective’ and is ‘by no means a typical police procedural… is instead a moody and emotive story of love, dark secrets, loss, homecoming and alienation.’
The Lewis Man by Peter May
In Peter May’s The Lewis Man, Fin Macleod has left the police force and returned to the Isle of Lewis. The ‘mummified’ body of a murdered young man has been found by peat cutters and DNA has linked him to the elderly father of Fin’s former lover. Fin feels compelled to try and solve the mystery before the authorities arrive to question the old man who is suffering from dementia.
Again, as in the first book in the Lewis Trilogy, the narrative is from two points of view, present-day in third person, past in first person, this time not from Fin’s pov, but from that of the old man, Tormond MacDonald. The juxtapositioning of these two narratives adds to the suspense, especially so when the reader sometimes gets ahead of the detectives due to Tormond’s revelations.
In the previous book we learned that Fin MacLeod had recently lost his young son, but this back-story seemed rather ‘tacked on’, since not much was made of it in The Blackhouse. However, in The Lewis Man we get more frequent glimpses of this tragedy’s effects. In one instance Fin catches site of Tormond’s grandson and his wife and child through a café window:
“Fin turned, and through the shadow of his own reflection he saw Fionnlagh and Donna together at a table on the other side of the glass. A carrycot sat on the floor between them, and Fionnlagh held his baby daughter in his arms, gazing with unglazed love into her tiny, round blue eyes. She gazed back adoringly at her father, impossibly small fingers grasping his thumb. Just as Robbie had once held Fin’s.
Fin had only a moment to feel the regrets of a lifetime press down on him before Donna turned and saw him.”
Though our understanding of Fin Macleod’s character increases as he strives to uncover the identity of the Lewis man, Fin’s character often seems almost secondary to the character of the old man, Tormond MacDonald, whose sometimes fractured memories ring so true. Just as Fin’s memories in the first book pivot around an actual piece of history, the annual baby gannet kill in his community, Tormond’s memories focus on a piece of Scotland’s history with wider and more devastating repercussions, the shameful treatment of Catholic orphans during the 1950s.
Peter May’s The Lewis Man is a very compelling read, up to a point…
To be truthful, I’m no longer conflicted; this ending just outright annoyed me. It felt contrived and not worthy of being the climax to the preceding chapters. It falls into what I call ‘the American TV drama mode’ replete with vengeful gangsters and shoot-em-ups.
So, did I read the third in the trilogy? Yah, I did, but this time resigned to the probability I’d enjoy the first ninety percent and be totally ticked off by the ending. Glutton for punishment, eh?
The Chessmen by Peter May
In the final book of The Lewis Trilogy the best thing I learned was about lochs disappearing due to ‘bog bursts.’
Unfortunately I also learned about the inadvisability of including extraneous narrative arcs in a mystery, and how you really lose credibility when you drop un-fore-shadowed plot developments into the mix four-fifths of the way in. I also witnessed one of the most teeth-grindingly poor ways of tidying up loose ends just for the sake of tidying up loose ends. I figure Peter May just lost interest in Fin Macleod; I know I just lost interest in Peter May.
Next Post 26 March 2013