Review: The Black House by Peter May

Welcome to LewesI’m not a big crime reader, but The Black House has done well for itself since its release last year, getting a spot on Richard & Judy and finding itself consistently in the Top 10, so I wanted to see what all the fuss was about.

The novel opens where another might have climaxed*. Fin McLeod (oh yes, this book is SCOTTISH) is a police detective in Edinburgh, reeling from the death of his son – troubled, plagued by nightmares, unable to work, and marriage disintegrating. But a murder on the Isle of Lewis that echoes one of Fin’s own unsolved cases calls him back to his home and a past he has tried to forget.

I read a review of this novel on BookGeeks that described it as an unconventional crime novel, but actually the Isle of Lewis functions rather like a Christie manor or Midsomer (my points of reference obviously veer towards the old lady Sunday night viewing, rather than anything grittier or darker than Jonathan Creek). Fin finds himself interviewing the very close-knit community he sought to escape, renewing old friendships, tensions and memories. The narration is interspersed with flashbacks to his childhood on the island – his friends, his girl-next-door-tentative romance with Marsaili and his parents’ early death.

It’s an atmospheric place to set a novel, and is packed with information about the culture of an island that is both part of and separate from Scotland. I had only the vaguest notion of the tradition of guga hunting that still occurs on Sula Sgeir, but the book manages to patiently explain the tradition without making you feel a research grant is being rammed down your throat (not always an easy task). As a born city-dweller, it’s hard to know whether the emphasis on Gaelic in the pubs and as a marker of belonging is a little twee, and similarly whether it’s really that likely that Fin would know everybody (it’s interesting that the local Ness bobby who becomes Fin’s hapless sidekick doesn’t seem to have nearly the insight into the local characters that the absentee Fin does, unless it’s for a bit of expositional dialogue). But local charm is a difficult thing to get right, and probably sounds a bit twee to our hackneyed ears even when it’s genuine – and with Peter May, I certainly get the impression he’s writing from his own experience.

As you might expect from a classic crime novel, it’s only half about the murder. It’s really more about Fin confronting his own demons and making sense of what happened to his son, a spectre which makes us feel like there is more to discover, and which – without giving too much away – does work to quite artfully misdirect us. While there is the odd niggle – a bit of convenient ‘pub dialogue’ that runs through the last 15 years of personal history, the slightly far-fetched denouement, and the increasing incredulity with which you find yourself asked to sympathise with a man who at one stage in his flashbacks is entirely unsympathetic (but then in a way that’s part of the flair of the book, that it carries it off) – on the whole this is a gripping read. I left work early to read the next chapter. On one memorable day I missed my stop because I wanted to find out what happened.

If there is anything frustrating about the novel, it is the way in which characters, most notably Fin, can sometimes behave in quite arbitrarily irrational ways. The secrets that they harbour on the island are generally convincing, but one has to worry whether Marsaili is really given her dues as a 3D character, given some of the choices that she makes and, in a sense, beholden to her set-up as the apex of a manly love triangle. Some of this does become clearer by the end, but half way through the book you are left wondering whether Peter May really knew how to write into the deeper, darker corners of the mind. By the end of the novel, I’m still not sure, but for entirely different reasons. And it’s worth reading the novel just to find out what they are.

* I feel really weird using this word to mean ‘the moment of dramatic intensity that signals a mystery/thriller’s central revelation’ because, like you (even if you won’t admit it), I have read too much softcore porn. Let’s just acknowledge that this is an unfortunate side-effect of the word and move on…*titter*.

In a tweet: Wallander meets the Wicker Man.



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