THE BLACKHOUSE

Written by Peter May

Review written by Calum MacLeod

Calum MacLeod is a reporter for the Inverness Courier and had been writing for SHOTS since its early days. In 2009 the Highland and Islands Media Awards' judging panel awarded him “Highly Commended Feature Writer of the Year”.


THE BLACKHOUSE
Quercus
RRP: £12.99
Released: 3rd February 2011
HBK

If our crime writers are to be believed our apparently placid Scottish islands are hot beds of crime. Ann Cleeves has won the Crime Writers Association Gold Dagger for her tales of murder in Shetland and Louise Welsh has develved into mystery and intrigue on little Lismore.

Now Peter May has turned to Lewis, though with a murder rate currently running at one a century, as the author notes, it is hardly seems likely to offer fertile ground for a crime series, even if it is first of a planned trilogy.

However, May knows his Lewis. Though he comes to the setting as an outsider, he spent six years on the island working on STV’s Gaelic language soap "Machair", obviously filing away the details of island life.

These feeds into a story which, remarkably in 21st century Britain, could not have worked anywhere else, from the stark Calvinism which ensures the island Sabbath remains very much the Lord’s Day, to the annual guga hunt of baby gannets conducted by the men of Ness on an inhospitable islet, recently the subject of a BBC2 documentary, which provides the meaty climax to the tale.

Lewis is shown to us through the eyes of Inspector Fin MacLeod, a policeman in Edinburgh sent back to the island of his birth after a killing there bears similarities to a case he is investigating.

Once he is back on the island the narrative splits between Fin’s present day investigation and his first person memories of growing from childhood into a teenager only too anxious to escape a future that seem to him to offer few prospects other than joyless religion and alcoholism.

Like many returning exiles, he starts to see what he failed to appreciate as a youngster and misses as an adult. "You might not think so now, but this is a magical place," he tells a teenager, though the book is still not one likely to receive a whole hearted endorsement from the Western Isles tourist board.

Atmosphere and character are the main things here, though the former manse rebel turned stiff-necked minister could have been explored further, but there is still space for a strong story with a solution that connects to the not entirely sympathetic Fin’s own past mistakes.

Thanks to May, Lewis is firmly on Scotland’s crime map and easily stands comparison with Ian Rankin’s Edinburgh or Denise Mina’s Glasgow.

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