The northern part of Lewis was flat and unbroken by hills or mountains, and the weather swept across it from the Atlantic to the Minch, always in a hurry. And so it was always changing. Light and dark in ever-shifting patterns, one set against the other – rain, sunshine, black sky, blue-sky. And rainbows. My childhood seemed filled by them. Usually doublers.
I was encouraged to check out Peter May’s “Lewis Trilogy” of Scottish police novels. I have now read The Blackhouse, the first of them. My reaction is positive, but mixed. The writing (witness the passage above) is superior. My main problem with the book was with the main character and sometime narrator (he narrates the out-of-sequence flashbacks which constitute about half of the book), Fin McLeod, Edinburgh police detective. One likes to like the hero of a book, but sometimes Fin is hard to like. However, there’s a reason for that, entirely in line with the purposes of the story.
Fin is a native of the island of Lewis, in the Hebrides, a bleak place where life is tough to sustain and economic times are hard. He got away and became a policeman in Edinburgh, and has been back only once since. But when a man is murdered in his old home town, in a way almost identical to a murder he’s investigating in Edinburgh, he’s assigned to go and see if there’s a connection.
Back at home, he encounters many old friends and enemies, most of them greatly changed physically but much the same at heart. The course of his investigation rouses memories, which constitute the many long flashbacks in the narrative. Gradually he finds that the similarities between the two murders are no accident, and that he will have to confront the deepest and blackest secrets of his past.
As I mentioned, I found it hard to root for Fin sometimes. He often seems cold and unsympathetic to others. But it’s not surprising that he keeps people at a distance, considering the amount of loss he suffered growing up, as we learn. He seems to have been touched by more than his share of tragedy, even in a place where life is a marginal proposition for most.
For the Christian reader, there are interesting implications. Fin describes himself as not a believer, but not an atheist either – he’s just mad at God. Christians – and there are many on Lewis – seem to be uniformly pinched and joyless. On the other hand, one of the most important positive characters in the book reads the Bible constantly and draws wisdom from it. So I think there’s more going on here than mere flippant modern secularism.
The Blackhouse is a beautiful book, but challenging. I’m not sure whether I recommend it or not, but I’ve bought the sequel. Cautions for sex and language and graphic descriptions of murdered bodies.