The Isle of Lewis is the most desolate and harshly beautiful place in Scotland. When a bloody murder on the island bears the hallmarks of a similar slaying in Edinburgh, police detective Fin Macleod is dispatched north to investigate. Since Fin himself was raised on the island, the investigation represents not only a journey home but a voyage into his past. Each year twelve island men sail out to a remote and treacherous rock called An Sgeir on a perilous quest to slaughter nesting seabirds.
No longer necessary for survival, this rite of passage is still fiercely defended. But for Fin the hunt harbours a horrific memory which might, after all this time, demand an even greater sacrifice.
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What a great story!
A stunning mystery novel
This is mystery writing at its very best, to which I would add that it is also contemporary fiction at its best. That might sound a little elitist, but I think there tends to be a perception that somehow mysteries don’t quite rank up there with modern “literature”. Actually, I do find that what I consider to be a 5-star mystery isn’t always a great novel, but The Blackhouse is definitely both.
I think what distinguishes a great mystery from the very good is the richness of the sense of place created by the author, and the emphasis on character rather than plot. That’s why I think that this book by Peter May puts him alongside some of the other “mystery” writers whose work I most enjoy and respect: James Lee Burke, Elmore Leonard, P.D. James, Ruth Rendell and Tana French to name but five. Like Dave Robicheaux and Clete in Burke’s Lousiana/Montana books, Finn is a wonderfully constructed – and highly flawed – character.
A bonus of this novel is that the story of Finn’s first two decades is interspersed throughout the book with the contemporary murder mystery. It’s like having two novels for the price of one. In a way each part could stand alone as a novel, but in The Blackhouse they are so skilfully interwoven as to complement the understanding of the other.
Let me tell you how good this book is. About three years ago I had to give up reading because of illness, since when I’ve listened daily to audible.com books (probably 400 by now). Unfortunately the second and third parts of the trilogy of which The Blackhouse is the first are not available as audio books in Canada, but I so much want to continue following Finn’s story that I’ve ordered printed copies of both books.
One drawback, if you can call it that, goes back to the richness and decriptions (indeed the integral nature) of the setting (the Isle of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides off the north-west cost of Scotland; unfortunately I’ve never been there but I did once spend two weeks camping on the adjacent islands of Benbecula and South Uist). The playing time of Part 1 of the audio version is a little over five hours, but it took me at least eight hours to listen to, because I had my iPhone at hand and was constantly looking up place descriptions, photographs and maps. I even searched for a song that was mentioned in the story, and watched videos of the gaga hunters.
There’s no need to say any more, except buy and enjoy!