You might call me a budding ecologist, but that would imply that my life has more purpose than it actually does. 'Aspiring writer' would also be far too grand a title. For now, let's just settle for calling me a man; that, at least, is beyond doubt.
Published April 5th 2013
The Blackhouse, The Lewis Man, The Chessmen
On the Isle of Lewis, at the northern end of the Outer Hebrides, the wheels of progress turn more slowly than they do on the Scottish mainland. For its inhabitants, there exists a choice between escape and stagnation. For those who choose to stay, obscurity beckons. Thank God, then, for the dead bodies that keep popping up all over the place. Without them, life on Lewis would be pretty depressing.
Enter Detective Inspector Finlay Macleod, or 'Fin' for short. Like so many others who grew up on Lewis, Fin left the island at the first available opportunity. Contrary to his expectations, however, life in Edinburgh is proving to be no less oppressive than life on Lewis. With the recent death of his young son the result of a hit-and-run accident weighing heavily on his conscience and his marriage in tatters, Fin practically leaps at the opportunity to return to the place that he was once desperate to escape from: there has been a murder in Fin's home village, the circumstances surrounding which closely mimic those of an unsolved case on which Fin has been working in Edinburgh. In the process of attempting to solve the murder of one of his childhood enemies, Fin is forced to revisit old memories and past relationships. Lewis, he soon discovers, is a hard place to leave, and a much harder place to forget.
With The Blackhouse, The Lewis Man and The Chessmen (published in 2011, 2012 and 2013 respectively), Peter May has breathed new life into a genre that largely due to its having been hijacked by the likes of James Patterson has grown stale. Each book in the trilogy adheres to a structure whereby the chronicle of present-day events is interspersed with frequent flashbacks. For May, these flashbacks serve as a means by which the reader can be drip-fed information relating to the murder that is the subject of the book in question. This technique is remarkably effective, and kept me up well into the night on more than one occasion.
The Lewis Trilogy is undoubtedly an impressive literary feat, but is it perfect? As it turns out, the answer to that question is an unequivocal 'no'. The Blackhouse, The Lewis Man and The Chessmen are unquestionably examples of crime fiction very good crime fiction, but crime fiction all the same and they unfortunately fall victim to several of the pathoses that commonly afflict that genre. Perhaps the most grating of this series' shortcomings is Peter May's occasional reliance upon denouements in which loose ends are tied up in the literary equivalent of being awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in recognition of having 'liked' the 'Free Tibet' page on Facebook.
In the end, what elevates each of the books in this series above a run-of-the-mill police procedural is a combination of strong characterisation, a brilliantly conveyed atmosphere, and an interesting and original narrative structure. Unusually for the genre, May has managed to create characters who are three-dimensional and here's the real surprise whom you actually care about. Moreover, the picturesqueness of the Outer Hebrides' unique geography is not lost on May, and he artfully renders its rugged beauty with a sense of flair that borders on the poetic. He makes the most of his talent for description, effortlessly suffusing his storytelling with a pervasive sense of mood that swiftly latches onto your brain and engulfs your consciousness. His writing brilliantly evokes a feeling of isolation, of an ever-widening fissure between the inhabitants of mainland Scotland and those of Lewis, shackled as they are by tradition and financial hardship. They are a people struggling to find relevance in a modern world. Thankfully, courtesy of Peter May's Lewis Trilogy, they have found plenty in modern literature.