In The Spotlight: Peter May’s The Blackhouse

>In The Spotlight: Laura Lippman's Baltimore BluesHello, All,

Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. Some crime novels and series weave the culture and lifestyle of a particular place into the story in such an integral way that readers learn as much about the place as they do about the story itself. That’s the way Peter May’s Lewis trilogy is, so let’s use that to take a look at one particular place and culture. Let’s turn the spotlight on The Blackhouse, the first of that trilogy.

Fionnlagh ‘Fin’ Macleod is an Edinburgh-based police detective who’s investigating the murder of conveyancing lawyer John Sievewright. The team hasn’t got very far when there’s another murder with a lot of points in common. This time, the victim is Angel Macritchie, who’s lived all his life on the Isle of Lewis. Macleod’s boss DCI Black wants him to go to Lewis and find out if the same killer is responsible for both murders. At first Macleod doesn’t want to go. For one thing, he and his wife Mona are still dealing with the first shock and sadness of losing their son Robbie in a hit-and-run accident. For another, Macleod has no desire to return to Lewis, where he grew up. He’s had a lot of sadness there, and memories that he would rather keep buried. But his boss insists.

When Macleod arrives, he and DS George Gunn, a local man, get to work on the Macritchie murder. For Macleod, this is a very personal case. He and Macritchie grew up together and have a complicated history. And as he talks to the people who knew the victim, he also reunites with many people he knew when he lived on Lewis. For example, there’s his former best friend Artair Macinnes and Artair’s wife Marsaili. There are also Murdo Ruadh, Donald Murray and Calum Macdonald, who’ve lived in the area all their lives too. All of these people have a history with the victim; and with very little exception, it hasn’t been good. Macritchie had always been a bully and a boor, and several of the people Macleod speaks to have painful memories of his harassment. Macleod himself has been at the receiving end of it more than once.

But most of those experiences were long ago, so on one level, it doesn’t make much sense to kill a man now for something that happened almost twenty years ago. As Macleod digs deeper, though, he finds that there are also some very good present-day motives for the murder. Macritchie hasn’t exactly changed his ways.

There’s another issue, too. If the killer was local, with a personal motive, how does that explain the Edinburgh killing? It’s a complex puzzle, and to solve it, Macleod has to do more than just find clues and establish relationships and alibis. He also has to face his own past.

Most of this novel takes place on Lewis. As cliché as it may sound to say this, the island itself really does become almost a character. It’s a sometimes very inhospitable place, but with unexpected flashes of sunlight and charm, and rugged beauty. The people there know how to respect the forces of nature, and they’re very much attuned to it.

It’s more than just the geography and climate, though, that make this place unique. There’s also the local language and culture. Many of the people speak Gaelic (although a lot speak English as well), and they do so with pride. For those not familiar with that language, May provides a helpful pronunciation guide at the beginning of the story. It’s also worth noting that as we learn the histories of the characters, we also learn some interesting things about language use on the island. For a time, there was great social and educational pressure to make sure that the school children learned and used only English. It was regarded as the status language. Now, Macleod notices that it’s become fashionable to speak Gaelic; having that language is now considered a mark of prestige. I could speculate on several reasons for this that are outside the scope of a book analysis; it’s a fascinating phenomenon.

There’s also the element of tradition vs modernity in the novel. For example, one island tradition, stretching back as far as anyone knows, is that each year, a group of men go to an outlying rock fifty miles from Lewis called An Sgeir. They spend about two weeks there harvesting guga, young gannet who nest on An Sgeir. It’s a difficult and dangerous trip, and those who go belong, as you might say, to a special club. It’s been a mark of high status for many, many generations to be asked to join the team. But there is a growing opposition to what’s seen as animal cruelty and destruction of natural resources. This conflict is one backdrop to the story, and An Sgeir plays its role in the events.

There is also the character of Macleod himself. He grew up on Lewis, passed his exams, was accepted to Glasgow University, and went there to start his own life. But in some ways, he’s never really left Lewis. As we learn the truth about Angel Macritchie’s death, we also learn about Macleod’s backstory. His history is told through flashbacks interspersed throughout the novel, and presented in the first person. Through those flashbacks we learn of his childhood, his interactions with the other characters in the story, and, very slowly, about some of the key points in his life. Readers who prefer a story to be told in sequence will notice this. That said, though, May makes it clear when the various events in the story take place.

Life hasn’t been easy for Macleod, and it isn’t now. He and Mona have been having trouble, especially since their son’s death. And the process of facing his past is difficult. But readers who are tired of drunken, dysfunctional sleuths who cannot cope with life will be pleased to note that Macleod doesn’t drown his sorrows or dissolve them in pills. His life has had plenty of heartache, but he deals with it.

This is the first of a trilogy. So there are story arcs that are not completed. Readers who prefer standalones, where everything is settled in the one novel, will notice this. Still, the main mystery – who killed Angel Macritchie and why – is resolved.

The solution to the case is bleak. And none of the characters (including Macleod) is, as the saying goes, without sin. This isn’t a light story where the killer is led off in handcuffs and everything is sorted out again. And no-one comes through unscathed. At the same time, there are signs that life will go on, and there could even be some good in the future.

The Blackhouse is the story of life on the Isle of Lewis, and of one man’s journey, if you will, into his past as he solves a mystery that takes place there. It features a look at a unique place and way of life, and shows how past events impact our lives even years later. But what’s your view? Have you read The Blackhouse? If you have, what elements do you see in it?


Coming Up On In The Spotlight

Monday 3 August/Tuesday 4 August – Working Girls – Maureen Carter

Monday 10 August/Tuesday 11 August – Massacre Pond – Paul Doiron

Monday 17 August/Tuesday 18 August – Seneca Falls Inheritance – Miram Grace Monfredo


Filed under Peter May, The Blackhouse

42 responses to “In The Spotlight: Peter May’s The Blackhouse

  1. Margot, I really look forward to reading this book. I have had it on the TBR pile for a while and hope to get to it in the next few months.

    • I really hope you’ll enjoy it, Tracy. It has a very strong sense of place and culture; and, in my opinion, the characters are well-developed. I’ll be interested in what you think.

  2. Kay

    Oh my goodness! I loved this book and the whole trilogy, but I think I’m most partial to this one. Such an interesting setting. It just blew me away – literally had I been there, right? The language, the customs, the traditions – it was all really intriguing. We discussed this book in my mystery group and it well-loved by everyone – even the ones that are not fond of bleak, grim books. I was surprised, in a way, but not really. The story just won’t let you go. I highly recommend it and the whole trilogy.

    • I agree with you completely, Kay. The trilogy has a strong and rich sense of local place, culture and language. May sets the reader in Lewis without (in my opinion) ‘piling on’ too many details. As you say, it’s a sad, sad book in ways; yet, it’s also got some lighter points, and you get the feeling life will go on, if I can put it that way. I’m glad you enjoyed it as much as you did.

  3. I haven’t read anything by Peter May yet. It sounds like The Blackhouse is a good place to start.

  4. Howard

    After reading this series, Peter May is on my “I will read anything by this author” list.

  5. Well, as you know, I bang on about Peter May’s books endlessly so it won’t surprise you to know that I loved this one! I think the books set on Lewis – this trilogy and Entry Island – are his best work. He seems to have a real feel for the place and its culture. Of course, he spent a lot of time there when he was writing and producing Machair, a hugely successful Gaelic drama serial. I hope he might revisit the islands in future books.

    • No, FictionFan, it doesn’t surprise me at all that you loved this book. I agree, too, that May really does have a sense of Lewis and a feel for the place. I didn’t know he’d done Machair. Now I must see if I can find it (hopefully with English subtitles). It sounds fascinating!

  6. Keishon

    Sorry to be your one lone dissenter, Margot, but I did try reading this book when it first came out but I didn’t finish it. I loved the beginning! but when the story cut to the flashbacks, it completely lost me. I’m glad many of you enjoyed the trilogy. I just wish I could say the same.

    • No need for apologies, Keishon. Not every book is for everyone. If you weren’t caught up after the flashbacks, well, you weren’t. I give you credit for giving it a try before deciding you weren’t going to like it.

      • x x

        I’m with Keishon. I found it very slow moving and then the flashbacks began and killed it completely for me. If I remember correctly, I gave up after about 50 pages.

        Too many books, too little time!

  7. Col

    Sounds interesting, I think I have it somewhere, but don’t know when I’ll get to it!

  8. Margot: Loved the book even though it was mighty depressing at times. If I ever get to Scotland I am going to try hard to get to Lewis. I want to experience that wind blasted isle.

    • I’d like to visit Lewis, too, Bill. And about the book, you’re right that there are some very depressing aspects of it. But it wasn’t relentless (well, at least it wasn’t for me). Very glad you enjoyed this.

  9. Thanks for this Margot – I now have a Peter May on order – all your fault 🙂

  10. Marianne Wheelaghan

    I really enjoyed reading The Blackhouse. However, i did struggle a wee bit to believe in the “children” characters and their relationships. It was a while ago when I read it so I can’t be more precise than that. Overall, though, it was compelling and I know I’ll read the other two books at some point ;o)

    • That’s interesting, Marianne, that you found those interactions a little less credible than the reactions among the adults. And sometimes that reaction – that something doesn’t really feel credible – happens for a reason you can’t really identify. Still, I’m glad that you enjoyed the book. I hope you’ll like the others, too.

  11. There are books which might entertain you but don’t stick in your memory. A few months after reading this I remember the ‘queer folk’ on the island and how different they were to an islander who has left and absorbed modern urban culture. The passages about guga harvesting were also vivid. The denouement? I’ve forgotten that. I think that for me, the island stands out as the main character, the element that makes the book a bit special.

    • The island is most definitely a strong part of this novel, Ian. And it does stay after you read the book, I think. Or it did with me. I think May did a very effective job of depicting the island, its people and the culture they’ve developed there. Interesting point too about how Macleod sees them differently after having been away. That’s a blog post topic in and of itself…

  12. After reading this spotlight and then the comment section I think I need to add The Blackhouse to the TBR pile. As you know, I love dark, gritty reads.

    • I think you’d like it, Sue. It is dark and gritty; yet it’s not relentless. And the setting is done brilliantly, I think. If you read it, I’d love to know what you think of it.

  13. The guga section was the most memorable part for me, and overall I liked this one more than book 2.

  14. Patti Abbott

    My comment from yesterday disappeared so I will say it again. I thought this was a brilliant novel. Second in series still was good but not as good. This one was the best mystery I read that year.

    • Thanks, Patti, for talking the trouble to comment again. I’m sorry the comment you left yesterday disappeared (WordPress!). At any rate, I’m glad you enjoyed this one so well. It does, in my opinion, have a memorable setting, well-drawn characters and a good, solid mystery. Can’t get much better…

  15. Margot, as I read through your excellent review, I thought of the book as being quite “depressing,” and saw that Bill felt the same way. I think, Macleod’s past and his flashbacks heighten the intensity of this novel, adding a touch of harsh realism to the plot and the narrative that can be quite appealing in crime fiction. Though, not everyone might like it.

    • You’ve put that quite well, Prashant. There is a sense of harsh reality that is conveyed in the flashbacks as well as in the depictions of the weather, which is often unpleasant. The people in this novel do not have plush, easy lives. That adds intensity to the work, but as you say, it also makes it depressing in places. It’s not for those who prefer light, ‘frothy’ kinds of mysteries.

  16. Nancy

    I’m thrilled to find a blog that is singing the praises of The Blackhouse. I loved it! I read it a couple of years ago and immediately ordered The Lewis Man and then The Chessmen from Amazon UK because I couldn’t be bothered with waiting on the US publication dates! I think I liked the Lewis Man every bit as much as The Blackhouse. The Chessmen maybe not quite as much, but still pretty great.

    Peter May’s writing is just wonderful, with great characters, including the weather and island who seems characters unto themselves.

    I’m not a big audio book fan, but if you ever get the chance to listen to The Blackhouse on audio (which I did after I’d read it) it is great. The narrator (Peter Forbes) does a fantastic job. His interpretation of Marsaili as a child will make you laugh out loud and he’ll have you near tears with the final scenes. Brilliant!

    Thanks for making my day!

    • Glad you enjoyed the post, Nancy. I agree completely that May is a very talented writer. He does such an effective job, I think, of evoking place, culture and so on. And of course they mysteries make sense given that context. Thanks for the suggestion of the audio book. Like you, I don’t listen to audio books much (‘though I do at times). It sounds as though Forbes does an excellent job with the narration, and sometimes, that makes all the difference in the world. I’ll have to see if I can get my hands on it.

  17. I’ve been aware of these books for a while without having tried them – I really should get hold of this one and see if it does it for me.

    • It has such a strong sense of culture, place and local people, Moira, in my opinion. If you read it, I’ll be keen to know what you think of it. You’ll want to be prepared, though: this is not a light, ‘frothy’ crime novel…

  18. Kathy D.

    I read Peter May’s Entry Island which starts on the Isle of Lewis and goes to the Madeleine (Magdalen) islands in the St. Lawrence River in Quebec. It got me interested in the history of the Isle of Lewis, and so I think I’ll be starting this series. There are just so many series to read.

    • Oh, there are, aren’t there, Kathy?! I hope you’ll like the Lewis trilogy. In my opinion, May is very talented, and this particular novel has a strong sense of the place and culture of Lewis.

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