The Blackhouse

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The Blackhouse, Peter May, book reviewThe Blackhouse is a novel by Peter May, set on the Isle of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides, the first in a series (trilogy according to Amazon) featuring Detective Fin Macleod. Having escaped Lewis at the age of eighteen, Fin is packed off to the island from Edinburgh when a murder is committed in a similar manner to one he has been investigating in Edinburgh.

The story alternates between the present and flashbacks to Fin’s childhood and adolescence, with the present being in third person and the past in first person. Although packaged as a crime novel or thriller, the whodunnit isn’t really the focus of the novel. Fin never wanted to return to Lewis, and is frequently confronted by bad memories. The flashbacks help to unravel his past – we get information in bits and pieces, so it is not until very near the end that we learn the full truth of his past. Peter May has structured this aspect of the story very well, so that you are given enough information to whet your curiosity, but never enough to lose the page-turning effect of the story.

The setting is all important in The Blackhouse – indeed, the Isle of Lewis is as much a character in the story as the people. It is a windswept place, with few opportunities for young people and only beginning to emerge from the hold of the Free Church – it was not long ago that residents could do absolutely nothing on the Sabbath. I am unsure of May’s connection to Lewis – there is no mention of it in the mini-bio in the book – but his portrayal of it is certainly not flattering. Houses are derelict, there are few jobs, many have turned to alcohol, and those from Fin’s childhood who stayed on the island are sad creatures who appear to have wasted their lives. While this picture of life on Lewis may have some up in arms, there is perhaps some truth in it – many islands struggle now as the younger generations leave for the mainland.

“Exciting, atmospheric and interesting, The Blackhouse is a very enjoyable read…”

Saying all that however, a harsh setting is almost a pre-requisite for a crime novel, certainly a Scottish crime novel. The raw beauty of Lewis is beautifully portrayed by May, even though he does it in such an ominous way, as part of the story, that you expect Fin to stumble over a dead body round every corner.

There are many detailed descriptions of Lewis and its towns and villages, and it certainly seems that May has done his research in order to be able to accurately portray the island – having never visited Lewis, I cannot be sure the details are all correct. I do have to wonder about the accuracy of it all however, as the only reference he makes to Aberdeen is incorrect – he refers to the hospital as “Forester Hills”, when it should be “Forresterhill”. If the only reference to Aberdeen is incorrect, can we rely on the many detailed descriptions of Lewis?

Upon opening the book, the first thing I came across was a list of pronunciations for the Gaelic names and terms used in the book – appropriate given that Lewis is a Gaelic community. Glancing at this list I was pleased to see that the pronunciations were largely correct if not always capturing the subtleties of the language, and I was even more predisposed to like the novel when I saw my own name included in the list – it’s not often I read a novel with a character in it called Eilidh (May gives the correct pronunciation, which, if you’re wondering, is Aylay, with emphasis on the first syllable). You can imagine my disappointment when I learn that although Fin’s mother is called Eilidh, most of the uses of the name are for a boat named after her. Not even a big or fancy boat, just a wee rowing boat recovered from scrap.

The Blackhouse and Peter May are good additions to the Scottish crime canon. Exciting, atmospheric and interesting, The Blackhouse is a very enjoyable read, and recommended to all fans of the genre. I look forward to reading the second novel, The Lewis Man.

The Blackhouse by Peter May
Published by Quercus, September 2011
Many thanks to Quercus for providing a review copy of The Blackhouse.

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Blackhouse, The
by Peter May

3 Comments on "The Blackhouse"

  1. Peter May
    06/01/2012 at 11:43 Permalink

    Thanks for the very nice review. You wondered about my connection to the Isle of Lewis. I lived there for five months a year during the five years that I produced a Gaelic-language TV drama series for Scottish Television, so got to know the island very well indeed. The “Forester Hills” reference was an unfortunate typo which was picked up and corrected in later editions. But you’ll be pleased to learn that Fionnlagh’s baby girl, when born, is called Eilidh, after Fin’s mum. So, not just boats :)

  2. Peter May
    06/01/2012 at 11:44 Permalink

    That, of course, is in the follow-up book, “The Lewis Man”, which came out just this week!

  3. eilidhcatriona
    06/01/2012 at 12:03 Permalink

    Hello Peter, thanks for your comment and for taking the time to read the review. I really enjoyed The Blackhouse, and The Lewis Man is already on my bookshelf waiting to be read – I’ll put it to the top of my to-read pile now I know there’s an Eilidh in it!! :)

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Written by eilidhcatriona

A Scottish lass in her late twenties living in London. A prolific reader always interested in something new.

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