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Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Reviews of Peter May's Lewis Trilogy

From my reviews archive, I thought I’d post my reviews of Peter May’s Lewis Trilogy, set on the Isle of Lewis, the northernmost of the Outer Hebrides.  It’s a case of the first being excellent and the sequels just not measuring up.

The Blackhouse
4 Stars
This is the first of a literary thriller trilogy set on the Isle of Lewis, the northernmost of the Outer Hebrides. Detective Fin Macleod, a native of the island, is dispatched from Edinburgh to investigate a gruesome murder which resembles an earlier one committed in the city. The victim in Fin’s hometown is a local bully, Angel Macritchie, with whom Fin was acquainted. Reluctant to return to the island after an absence of many years, Fin nonetheless uncovers the identity of the killer and forgotten secrets of his early years.

The narrative is split between third person limited omniscient from Fin’s viewpoint as he investigates the murder in the present and first person from Fin’s viewpoint as he revisits his troubled memories of his 18 years on the Isle of Lewis. One of the most memorable flashbacks is to that of the guga harvest, the culling of juvenile gannets, a rite of passage for young men from the island.

Detective Fin Macleod is introduced and he, like a lot of literary detectives, comes with a lot of personal baggage. His many flaws are revealed gradually as he narrates episodes of his past. He proves not to be a totally admirable human being, but he seems well aware of his shortcomings and seems to genuinely want to make amends for his failings. Life has dealt Fin some devastating blows so one cannot help but have some sympathy for him.

What is interesting about a lot of the characters is that they are all shown to have both positive and negative traits. First impressions are often shown to be inaccurate. Angel, the victim, has no shortage of enemies. “’There’s a whole generation of men from Crobost who suffered at one time or another at the hands of Angel Macritchie’” (52) and the general feeling is that “’Whoever did it deserves a fucking medal’” (112). Yet Fin admits that in his role as cook for the guga hunters, he succeeded “in earning their respect” (197) and his behaviour towards a paraplegic classmate is better than that of anyone else (255 – 256).

The quality of the writing surpasses what is often found in mysteries. Diction such as “fallen into desuetude” (49) and “the gloom of this tenebrous place” (215) is the exception in mysteries but seems to be the rule for Peter May. Of course, this book is more than a mystery; in fact, the murder investigation is secondary to the exploration of Fin’s past.

There are several surprises along the way but the author plays no tricks. There are clues throughout although they are subtle. For me, the biggest clues were Fin’s inability to remember certain things though his memory of other events is almost eidetic. The revelations at the end answer the questions the reader might have in the course of reading the book. Most readers will correctly identify the killer, but his motivation is not fully explained until the end.

The portrayal of life in a small town is such that anyone who has ever lived in one will immediately recognize as accurate. As a young man, Fin wants to escape “the claustrophobia of village life, the petulance and pettiness, the harbouring of grudges” (180) but as an adult he realizes the villagers’ “struggle for existence against overwhelming odds. Good people, most of them” (79). Most of us have had such mixed emotions about our hometowns.

I’m really looking forward to the second and third books of this trilogy.

The Lewis Man
3 Stars
This second novel of the Lewis Trilogy opens with the discovery of a body in a peat bog. Fin Macleod, a retired police detective who has returned to the Isle of Lewis, the Hebridean island of his birth, is drawn into the murder investigation when it is determined that the body has DNA links to Tormod Mackenzie, the father of Marsaili, Fin’s first love.

The book has two points of view. Part is narrated in third person, focusing on Fin; other sections are in first person with Tormod as the narrator. This latter point of view is interesting because Tormod suffers from dementia. We learn about his life from his memories of the distant past. Some of the suspense in the novel is derived from our wondering whether Fin will be able to uncover that past without Tormod’s assistance. The problem is that Tormod’s memories are formed into such clear and detailed narratives; this hardly seems believable in a person suffering from progressive dementia.

One aspect of the novel that bothered me is the lengthy descriptions of the landscape and weather. Here’s an example: “The night was filled with the whispering sound of the sea. It sighed, as if relieved by the removal of its obligation to maintain an angry demeanour. A three-quarters moon rose into the blackness above it and cast its light upon the water and the sand, a light that threw shadows and obscured truths in half-lit faces. The air was soft, and pregnant with the prospect of coming summer, a poetry in the night, carried in the shallow waves that burst like bubbling Hippocrene all along the beach’ (252). The descriptions are poetic, but when virtually every chapter includes such descriptions, they soon become tedious. The author is certainly trying to establish the beauty and desolation of the Outer Hebrides, but so many references to the weather are not necessary to do so.

It is best if one has read the first book in the trilogy, The Blackhouse, because characters from it reappear and their stories are further developed. Fin’s relationships with Marsaili and her son Fionnlagh are better understood if one knows what transpired earlier. One of the most interesting aspects of this novel is these relationships. The past weighs heavily on Tormod but it does as well in Fin’s life.

Besides the weight of the past, this book also touches in the mistreatment of children. Fin’s childhood was less than ideal and Tormod’s was even less so. The novel touches on "the homers" - children from broken homes who were relocated to foster families in the Hebrides.

The resolution relies too highly on coincidence. The number of characters who come together at the end is unbelievable. And the foreshadowing of Fin’s comment, “’I wish you hadn’t told him your dad’s name’” (279) doesn’t make the ending more credible.

I thoroughly enjoyed the first book in this series; this second one was less satisfying, but I will certainly read the third to find out how it all ends.

The Chessmen
3 Stars
This is the last of The Lewis Trilogy; unfortunately, it is a disappointment.
Fin Macleod and a friend, Whistler Macaskill, discover a body in a plane at the bottom of a loch after it is drained. The body is identified as that of Roddy Mckenzie, a successful musician and friend of Fin and Whistler who disappeared seventeen years earlier. The remains indicate Roddy was murdered. As Fin sets out to investigate, he slowly uncovers several long-hidden secrets. Interspersed with the mystery are flashbacks to Fin’s youth as a roadie for Roddy’s band, Sòlas, a band in which Whistler was also a member.

One of the problems with the book is that characters are introduced who are never even mentioned in the previous two books. Whistler, for example, has been arguably Fin’s closest friend from childhood yet Fin never visited him when he returned to the Isle of Lewis? Fin’s time as a roadie for a Celtic band was also not detailed previously, though that was apparently a significant event in his life at university. Introducing so many new characters in the last of a trilogy suggests poor plotting.

Another weakness is the backstory of the band. Almost all the bandmates vie for the attention of the female lead singer, Mairead. Not only is their bickering rather juvenile, it seems a too-obvious ploy to add to the list of possible suspects in Roddy’s murder since Roddy and Mairead have an on-again/off-again relationship with Mairead turning to other band members when she and Roddy quarrel.

There is also some obvious plot manipulation which is unfair to the reader. Fin suspects Whistler has some information which he is not divulging, but he never directly confronts him to learn what he knows; he “allowed the issue to drift, failed to confront it” (265). Then, as Fin gets closer to the truth, he refuses to tell George Gunn, his policeman friend, what he suspects. He says, “’You do [deserve to know], George. And I promise, you’ll be the first. But not yet’” (225). He even repeats this later: “’I can’t tell you, George. Not yet’” (231). And to his lover, Fin says, “’I’ll go to [the police] when I know the truth. The whole truth’” (243). Withholding information from the reader is a cheap shot.

The resolution to the mystery is rather unbelievable. Most readers will come to suspect the truth but will dismiss that possibility as too incredible. The resolutions of the other stories carried over from the first two books seem rushed and contrived as well.

What I did enjoy is the historical elements. The references to the Lewis chess pieces and the sinking of the Iolaire had me researching more information. I had also never heard of a bog burst.

In looking back, I wish I had read only The Blackhouse and skipped the other two books in the trilogy since they just don’t measure up to the standards of that first one.