The book opens with a flourish. Fin McLeod is camping with his friend, Whistler Macaskill, on a mountain in southwest part of the Isle of Lewis. In the morning they look down into the valley and the loch that had been there the night before is gone. The whole lake has disappeared. There is nothing there but “a big empty hole”. Whistler says there has been a bog burst. It is a wonderfully evocative phrase.
When the pair look more closely at the great hole Fin sees something red and white. Through binoculars he sees it is a small one engine plane. He is able to read its call sign on the fuselage and recognizes it is the sign for the plane owned by their friend Roderick Mackenzie who went missing with this plane 17 years ago.
While Whistler does not want to get involved beyond reporting the plane Fin insists on going out to see the plane. When they reach it Fin is startled to see the plane is undamaged. More important there is a body in the pilot’s seat. When they open the door they can see terrible damage to the head. Their friend Roddy has been murdered.
Whistler has been Fin’s friend since they met at the boarding school in Stornoway that the boys and girls from the island attended after they completed elementary school. The book takes us back into their school lives.
At school Fin also became friends with Roddy who was already on his way to fame having formed a Celtic band that includes Whistler on flute and the lovely Mairead as the lead singer. While teenagers they are an accomplished band and play all over the island. They have a unique blend of traditional Celtic music with rock music.
As the story progresses we learn of the personal histories of Fin and his friends and some more history of the island.
In the present Fin has found employment as head of security on the Red River Estate. They need an experienced investigator as poachers are seriously damaging the salmon stocks. While there have always been locals who poached a fish or a hare or a deer the poaching has become organized and threatens the business. Awkwardly for Fin his friend, Whistler, is a brazen poacher though only for food.
The murder investigation is difficult 17 years after Roddy’s disappearance. It is hard to even understand why Roddy and the plane would even be at this remote loch far from the area of his flight plan.
In their personal lives Whistler is attempting to live off the land as much as possible. To gain some money he has carved a large set of the Lewis Chessmen. (The original Lewis Chessmen were found on the shore of the island in 1831.)
Fin and Marsalis continue to renew a relationship broken for 20 years. Marsalis remains wary of the reliability of a man who her cast her aside at university and later separated from his wife when their child died.
In a subplot Donald Murray is facing a trial within the Scottish Free Church over whether his violent actions at the end of The Lewis Man make him unfit to be a pastor within the church. He will be tried before 12 members of the Church in an open trial. Fin will have to testify as he was an eyewitness.
The Chessmen is a wonderful book. Readers are caught up in the lives of real people. May has created lively interesting characters with nary a stereotype among them.
While no character could rival Tormond Macdonald of The Lewis Man slipping deeper into dementia Whistler is a larger than life character, physically and emotionally, with a vivid personality
The story of Sòlas, the Gaelic island rock band, and their rise to international fame is fascinating.
Along the way the mystery is solved but the life stories of the characters and the Isle of Lewis make The Chessmen a great book.
While life problems and relationship issues remain there is an element of hope in The Chessmen that was absent in the darkness of The Blackhouse and The Lewis Man.
I hope that May returns at some date to Lewis to provide us further sagas on Fin and the other islanders. They are a memorable group living average lives with passion.