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