Despite all the great reviews of The Blackhouse I had hesitated to read the book. I had read Snakehead by May in 2003 and found it an average book. After reading Jose Ignacio Escribano’s very positive review at his fine blog, The Game’s Afoot, I decided I would read the book. When I came across it in the ship's library of Riviera while cruising in September I started reading it. Unable to finish it at that time I bought a copy a few days ago as a Christmas present to myself (please don’t tell my family) and raced through the book amidst the Christmas festivities.
Now it is not a light read for the holiday season. The story of Fin is dark. His life has been beset by tragedy. Many books in which the sleuth’s life is a tale of woe leave me depressed and working to turn the pages but Fin is different. His spirit, battered and bruised by misfortune, often self-induced, perseveres and kept me intrigued.
A police officer in Edinburgh, he returns to Lewis to see if the brutal slaying of Angel Macritchie, found hanging in a boat shed by a pair of teenagers looking for a quiet spot on a Saturday night, is connected to a murder he has investigated in Edinburgh.
Fin knew Angel and his younger brother, Murdo, as the bullies of his youth. Angel, a physically large man, has no defensive wounds. He must have been slain by someone able to get close to him without arousing suspicion.
The investigation takes Fin back to the islanders of his generation who either never left or returned to live on Lewis. Every encounter is taut with recollection. While he has been gone 18 years his memories of life on the isle are vivid.
His first day at school where he was humiliated by only speaking Gaelic was redeemed by Marsaili the pert and pretty little girl (bright blue eyes and ribbons in her pigtailed blonde hair) who tells the teacher she will translate for Fin.
His secure life with loving parents ends suddenly as a young boy when they die in an accident. Fin is stunned:
I spent a lot of time alone in my room, barely aware of the comings and goings downstairs, cars drawing up at the path and then driving off again. I had heard people time and again saying how brave I was, and my aunt telling them how I hadn’t spilled a single tear. But I know now that tears are a kind of acceptance. And I was not ready for that yet.
Their deaths become real when, in a haunting image, he leads the procession of men from the church to the graveyard walking between two lines of women.
Fin realizes life will never be the same when his aunt, the relative who will raise him, tells him after the funeral he will not return home. He will live with her and his bedroom will be a small cold room in the attic.
Fin will struggle with relationships ever after.
On his return to the island, after meeting Artair Macinnes, his best friend as a boy, and Marsaili who have married and their son, Fionnlagh, conflicting emotions surge through Fin.
For the investigation there are many in the community who have suffered at the hands of Angel but there is no one with an immediate motive.
Angel does have respect for being the cook for 18 years on the annual village expedition to An Segir to kill 2,000 guga birds. They are a local delicacy.
Fin was one of the 12 villagers who went to An Segir when he was a teenager. What happened on An Segir that August fortnight still affects all who went there.
May skilfully uses the weather and geography of Lewis as part of the story. I do not believe you can effectively set a book in any rural setting around the world without including the land.
As with many rural landscapes the Isle of Lewis is equally bleak and beautiful. Coming from a province where it is rarely calm I can appreciate the constant presence of the wind blowing across the island. Rarely does it caress Lewis. Most days it cuts the islanders.
Angel was not a man whose passing Fin mourned but he will find his killer. On the journey he finds depths in the islanders, including Angel, he thought he knew so well in his youth that he had never known.