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Tuesday, November 3, 2015

The Blackhouse by Peter May

Quercus, 501 pages, $14.99 (c2011, Amer. ed. 2014)

I’m late to the party. Scotsman Peter May has been publishing since 1978. “The Blackhouse” is the first of the Fin Macleod trilogy, set in the Isle of Lewis, the Outer Hebrides, Scotland, and it is the first of May’s books that I have read. He obviously mastered the dark matter of psychological crime fiction while he was waiting for me to read him.

“The Blackhouse” had an inauspicious beginning. No English-language publisher would print it. It was finally accepted by a French publisher, and in a twist worthy of Dickens, it was a hit at the Frankfurt Book Fair, garnering excitement and bidding wars. Of course, better late than never, a British publisher (Quercus) picked it up. Quercus was a new company at the time, although it had already scored hits with the translated books of … wait for it, wait for it … Stieg Larsson.

Dept. of Just Wondering: Was an English translation made of the French translation of May’s book written in English? (Have you ever used a translation app to turn something from English into another language, then back into English? It’s hilarious sometimes.) Just being facetious.

Back to the book.

Fin Macleod left the cloistered, claustrophobic town of Crobost on the wild and dark tip of the Isle of Lewis to become a big city police detective. It has been eighteen years since he left Crobost and he has not returned, except for his aunt’s funeral. He has a high-profile murder to solve in Edinburgh and, as the Fates would have it, a similar-enough murder victim is found on the Isle of Lewis. Talk about a welcome home!

Actually, Fin is not welcomed home. The police, territorial beings that they are, don’t want him sticking his big-city nose in their murder. He hasn’t kept in touch with childhood friends, and his presence sets off startling storylines. They don’t necessarily want him home either.

“The Blackhouse” has an unusual structure. It is thoroughly Fin’s story, but the murder narrative is told in third-person, while the back story gradually revealing the traumas that drove Fin away from the Isle of Lewis is told in Fin’s first-person voice. Mysteries abound and for a good while all we know is that “something” awful happened to Fin. Then it is revealed there are several “somethings.” One by one, Fin’s life is laid bare. In the end, it is less about the murder victim — by the way, a childhood acquaintance of Fin — and much, much more about the person Fin has become.

“The Blackhouse” is atmospheric, dark, rewarding, and a literary archaeological dig. The scenes set on the lonely island to which the village men journey to kill two thousand gugas (gannet chicks) each year is particularly chilling and riveting. That the trip serves as a rite of passage for older boys, including Fin when he was of age, gives the story a horrifying anticipation when it is finally told.

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