Cause and Effect amongst the Gannets

This is my review of The Blackhouse: Book One of the Lewis Trilogy by Peter May.

Only weeks after the death of his young son, Detective Inspector Fin Macleod is sent to Lewis, the Hebridean island of his birth to use his local knowledge to check out the similarity between the murder of an unsavoury old acquaintance, Angel Macritchie, and a death he has investigated recently in Edinburgh.

At first I found the plot a little formulaic, commencing with discovery of a murder, switching to a sinister scene which turns out to be a dream, featuring a detective with personal problems, and using the tourist locations of the Hebrides and Edinburgh. Then, I found myself impressed by the vivid descriptions of Lewis: the changing colours of the landscape, the ever-present wind, the dominance of the skies, changing dramatically from dark storm to light. I also liked the rounded character development, in which each player is a complex mix of good and bad, strength and weakness, as in real life.

The detective thriller aspect of the novel frequently takes second place to a psychological drama in which Fin retraces through flashbacks the events of his youth including the triangular relationship between his best friend Artair, and Marsaili, the girl he met on his first day at school.

We learn a good deal in the process about the history of Lewis, developed with a personal fortune gained from the Chinese opium trade, and the grim annual custom of slaughtering two thousand gannet chicks on the barren island of An Sgeir, based as it is on the islanders' former practical need for protein.

Although I found the twisting plot a page turner, as is often the case the final denouement proves far-fetched in some respects, in particular the plausibility of Fin's highly selective amnesia. There are a few other false notes, such as way the five-year-old Fin and his friends speak and think more like kids entering secondary, rather than primary school. Also, I was unconvinced by the extreme lack of sympathy of Fin's boss, bordering on harassment, to the effect that Fin should pull himself together a month after losing his eight-year-old son!

Despite these reservations, I plan to read "The Lewis Man", the second novel in the trilogy featuring the complex and flawed Fin Macleod.

⭐⭐⭐⭐ 4 Stars

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