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Good Literature for Children & Adults

Peter May - The Lewis Trilogy

Peter May does for Lewis what Ann Cleeves has done for Shetland. He has put the island of Lewis, in the Scottish Hebrides, on the mystery novel map, as another fabulous location in which to set a series of murder mystery novels.

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The first in the series, The Blackhouse begins with a very graphic description of a murder and autopsy. If I had not just bought this book and it’s sequel while on a trip to Scotland I might have returned them to the shelf and not read on. But take my husband’s advice, as I did, and skim through the gruesome beginning – a good ten pages – and you will then be into the story and it is just fine from then on.

The second novel in the series does not have the same graphic detail so, although The Blackhousewon several awards, perhaps I’m not the only reader who did not appreciate all the gory detail. What I did appreciate was the history of Lewis, the insight into the lives of the people who lived there over several generations – at first in the Black croft houses with a central peat fire and little light, and later in small stone houses with a little more comfort. We meet young Fionnlagh Macleod, Fin, growing up on Lewis in the 1960s and 70s, speaking only Gaelic until he starts school. We also meet his friend, Artair, whose father tutors both boys, and their friend, Marsaili – all growing up together, the closest of childhood friends.

Fin, we quickly learn, became a police officer in Edinburgh while Artair and Marsaili remained on Lewis. Chapters alternate between the present day murder investigation and Fin Macleod’s life now, and the past with the story of the three children, through their teenage years and beyond. The present day mystery that is being investigated is not as suspenseful as I might have liked, but the history and the story of the past more than makes up for this. When writing about the past Peter May is at his best, his words flow and the writing is pitch perfect. The passages about Fin’s childhood have echoes of Frank McCourt, even Dylan Thomas. Peter May has captured this generation, not so very long ago, and it is when he muses about people and their behavior that he most succeeds. Some characters are almost a parody of themselves, modeled by the decade that influenced them the most. When describing a young boy in his tutor’s study lost in daydreams, and then the room re-visited where the owner, long dead, has left his mark by the books on his shelves, Peter May is at this best.

Although he now lives in the south of France, in the 1990’s while working on a television series Peter May spent five months each year in the Outer Hebrides observing the landscape and the lives of the people on the islands.

After being turned down by all the major British publishers The Blackhouse was published in France as L’Ile des Chasseurs d’Oiseaux and won several awards in France before being published internationally in 2011. Chosen by the British television show, Richard & Judy for their book club in the fall of 2011 the book then became a best seller in Great Britain. I was happy to take the advice of a Guest House owner our first night in the Highlands and find myself a copy of The Blackhouse at the local bookshop, and since they had a special if you bought two books, I also purchased the sequelThe Lewis Man.

The Lewis Man begins with a present day murder that may involve Marsaili’s father, Tormand Macdonald. Fin Macleod has returned to Lewis, restoring his former home, and is considering staying on the island. As he reluctantly becomes involved in the investigation, he is drawn into the lives of his former friends and their families.

Again the novel is structured with chapters that alternate between the past and the present, revealing the childhood and teenage years of Tormand Macdonald’s life, the difficult years of the early 1900s, a time of hardship, when many left the islands and emigrated to Canada or Australia in search of a better life. And again the past is where this author shines, as he describes a time when children were orphaned or taken from their families and given to others, some to live almost as slaves while others were cherished and cared for.

The series concludes with The Chess Men, still in hardcover when I was in Scotland, but I could not wait for the paperback in order to find out what happened next to Fin McLeod. Again we have the murder of a man Fin knew when he was young. Fin, still working on restoring his parent’s old croft house, finds his personal life more complicated, his future uncertain. This time the past is not quite so far in the past, but the years when Fin and his friends were teenagers. Fin, while attending university in Glasgow, was also working as a roadie for a band from Lewis who were beginning to make a big name for themselves away from the islands. It is events from this time, and their consequences, that have resulted in the present day murder – and a mysterious disappearance from the past that has haunted those affected by it for a generation.

I’m not sure I’d put Peter May in the same league as Peter Robinson, Henning Mankell or John Lawton but his novels are worth more than a day on the couch – and if you are planning a trip to the Scottish Islands they really need to be in your suitcase.

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