“Knew, too, that it wasn’t just Mona he wanted to run away from. It was everything. Back to a place where life had once seemed simple. A return to childhood, back to the womb. How easy it was now to ignore the fact that he had spent most of his adult life avoiding just that. Easy to forget that as a teenager nothing had seemed more important to him than leaving.”
– The Blackhouse, Peter May (Lewis Triology #1)
I recently wrapped up the Lewis trilogy by Peter May. I was drawn to this series by the setting – the Isle of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides. The books are long and complex, heavy with nostalgia and regret. They are interesting but difficult, and dreary.
The trilogy starts with The Black House. Fin Macleod, Edinburgh detective, recently divorced and grieving after the death of his child in a hit and run, finds himself unwillingly returning to the village he grew up in on Lewis, to investigate a death similar to that in Edinburgh. In the present, the book explores Fin’s return as he meets friends and acquaintances from his childhood and investigates the crime and in the past, it follows the events that led to his departure, for him an escape, from Lewis. The setting is unique, and the book is a fascinating look at life on the islands in the later 20th century, and at the Hebridean practice of Guga hunting, with a twist at the end that is truly shocking, for I never saw it coming.
By book 2, The Lewis Man, Fin has quit the police and returned to the island for good. A body is found in a peat bog that has some relation to the father of Fin’s childhood sweetheart Marsailis. Like book 1 the book alternates between past and present- though in this book we get Fin’s view as he tries to settle in to life on the island and repair his relationship with Marsailis, and then the view of Marsailis’s father in the present and also his view in the past, showing the events that led up to the death of the boy in the peat bog. Again, the description of the island and the life there is vivid and here, the author highlights a part of history I never knew of- how children were taken from broken homes or orphanages in Scotland and sent to work for crofting families in the Outer Hebrides. It’s interesting, but I found the book slow, and it dragged in the middle, such that I ended up bored and almost dropping the series. Even if the book was as clever and complex as the first, it didn’t have the same impact despite another unexpected ending.
In the final book, The Chess Men, Fin is still on the islands, when a bog burst reveals the lost body of a rock star and Fin’s former friend. I realised I shouldn’t have taken a break from the books in book 2 as by the last in the trilogy I was lost- I was struggling to keep track of who is who, and how they fitted in the previous books, book 1 especially. The order of the books felt off- with book 1 and 3 revolving around both Fin’s past and present, whereas book 2 departs to the story of Marsailis’s father. (In fact, I’m reading goodreads reviews now and it seems that the character of Whistler wasn’t actually mentioned in book 1 which explains my confusion, and furthers my disappointment in this book – why wasn’t he mentioned if his friendship was apparently so dear to Fin?) I also realised I didn’t much like Fin here- he came across as arrogant and selfish. It started to feel arrogant that he was nosing his way into these crimes, as if no one else could solve them. I found his actions towards others cold. The writing was still clever and vivid, but I found it veered on the melodramatic at times- the descriptions of Fin’s emotions felt over the top in those moments.
There was something really off with Book 3 – it wasn’t a satisfying end to this trilogy at all. In particular, the conclusion of Fin’s son death was rushed, and his relationship with Marsailis left by the wayside and there was an abrupt, sudden character death.
By book 3 I was really struggling with this series and it tainted my reading experience. I adored the setting and the look into things like the Guga hunting, the ‘Homers’ and life out on the islands in general, but although the writing was mostly very good it veered towards being a bit heavy handed at times and the the sex scenes were awkward, and the trilogy ends very abruptly and without a good conclusion. Worth reading, and memorable, but with a bitter after taste. I enjoyed The Blackhouse most of all.
As an aside: I do find the title of book 3 very clever – in the subtle way it relates to the plot, and the solving of the crime.
Audio book notes: The Blackhouse was read by Steve Worsley and the other two by Peter Forbes. Both were excellent and I loved all the different accents. I found it amazing how Forbes could switch from Scottish to Southern English and to Cockney London with such ease! These books were probably a bit long and contemplative for audio- perhaps I missed some details or because I spent so much time on them I got confused by book 3, and it may have been that they were being read that by book 3 the writing came across as a little over dramatic. Peter Forbes reading was very flat, not particularly animated, probably because of the sombre atmosphere of the books, but it did make it tough going. I enjoyed both readings but I do wonder what kind of reading experience I would have had if I’d stuck to paperback instead.