Set 9 months after The Blackhouse the book has a brilliant premise. A perfectly preserved body of a young man is found in the peat bogs of the Isle of Lewis. Bodies buried in bogs have remained preserved for a couple of thousand years. The autopsy discloses irrefutable evidence this body has been there less than 60 years. On the deceased’s arm is a tattoo of the face of Elvis Presley with Heartbreak Hotel written on the collar. It is equally clear he was brutally murdered on a beach.
In an effort to identify the body the police check the deceased’s DNA against that of islanders tested in The Blackhouse who did not have the government destroy their results. Fin and Marsali are shocked when the results show the victim was related to Marsali’s father, Tormond Macdonald. Family and friends had understood he was an only child and had no living relatives.
Fin has returned to live on Lewis after resigning from the Edinburgh police. He continues to struggle to deal with the death of his son, Robbie, and has no desire to stay a police officer.
Ordinarily Fin and Marsali could have just spoken to Tormond but he has been beset with dementia and has a slender grasp on memory and reality. Marsali’s mother, Mary, has been worn down from caring for Tormond and insists he be taken to a home.
May takes the reader on an amazing and heartbreaking venture into Tormond’s deteriorating mind through the book. He hopes the bad Mary who sent him away will change back to the good Mary who has loved him for almost 50 years. He knows he is not at home but cannot figure out where he has been taken. Initially he thinks it is a hotel.
Tormond, as often the case with the elderly suffering dementia, can recall events of the distant past. In Tormond’s mental jouneys to his youth what happened to Tormond and his brother, Peter, is gradually revealed. It is an agonizing story.
While no longer with the police Fin investigates the murder for he knows the police will make Tormond their leading suspect. He cannot believe the gentle giant he knew as a boy would ever have killed anyone.
I had a mental jolt when Fin’s search into Tormond’s background reveals the real Tormond died as a teenager. Who is Tormond?
Tormond can only provide fragmentary and obscure references to his past when speaking aloud.
Fin and Marsali start to deal with their relationship. Fin had broken her heart with callous and selfish actions as a teenager. Fin is contrite while Marsali remains wary.
Fin still resents the austere Scottish church of his youth and in his bitterness over personal losses rejects God. He cannot understand men and women who believe in God and disdains their faith. He is as rigid as those he would condemn within the church.
I felt there was a better balance between darkness and light in this book. Not all is bleak upon the isle.
In Tormond there is a character I will long think of when I see those struggling with dementia in real life.
I appreciated that the key clue to the mystery was unique to the Hebrides.
I would have rated it a great book but for the ending. After a strong uncompromising story May went Hollywood to conclude the book. I wonder if his difficulties in publishing The Blackhouse (he could not find a publisher in England until after it became a success in France) led him to such an end. Whatever the reason it detracted from the story but probably made it easier to sell as a television series.
I am still looking forward to the third book, The Chessmen, being published later this year in Canada and will buy it. I have to find out what happens with Fin and Marsali.