I'm not used to so much tension in a plot that I find myself gripping the arms of the chair while I read, but as I reached the climax of Peter May's novel The Blackhouse, the upholstery bore the marks of my fingernails and I could hardly take in the words fast enough.
The other day I wrote about a first novel which I criticised for featuring too much drama, too many issues - it was implausible and unbalanced and for me it didn't work. While The Blackhouse contains many feature-filled pages, life-changing events and revelations of major consequence, they are beautifully played here, orchestrated by a writer in full command of his material, perfectly judged and paced, and so the whole story is utterly compelling and it carries the reader to the very last word. This book shows how the dramatic should be done.
A murder has taken place on the usually peaceable Hebridean island of Lewis. It's a particularly distinctive, brutal killing, and looks to be a carbon-copy of one which happened in Edinburgh some months earlier, so Fin Macleod, the detective leading that investigation, is brought in to look for parallels. Fin is a Lewisman, born and brought up on the island, though he left his past behind him when he went off to university and has scarcely been back since. Returning now to the small community in which he grew up, his schoolfriends - and enemies - victim and possible suspects, he finds a personal mystery a lot deeper than the crime to solve, one which will take much courage in confronting the past and facing the future.
Somehow connected to events surrounding the murder is the annual voyage to An Sgeir, 'The Rock', a tiny, inhospitable island fifty miles out in the Atlantic which is home to a gannet colony. For centuries, men from the north of Lewis have sailed out to the rock and spent a fortnight there hunting guga - the young gannet, formerly an important source of food, now a prized delicacy, the trip a rite of passage for the young men of the community, its traditions a bond from generation to generation. What happened on the rock when Fin went there as a young man will now determine his fate and that of others, and as the chosen twelve prepare for this year's dangerous expedition, so the novel builds to its powerful and stormy crescendo.
I found the mixture of the detective story and Fin's own history very deftly done and completely absorbing. Lewis itself - its landscape, its culture, its people - forms a large part of the book, familiar to any reader who has been there, just as fascinating to those who have not. The novel has two epigraphs, one Housman's "land of lost content", the other a Gaelic proverb: Tri rudan a thig gun iarraidh: an t-eagal, an t-eudach 's an gaol - "Three things that come without asking: fear, love and jealousy". If you read The Blackhouse - and I recommend you do - you'll understand how apt those lines are.
I see from Peter May's website that this book is the first part of a Lewis trilogy, and I hope he is getting a move on with the other two volumes because on the basis of this one, I can't wait to read them.