Wednesday, October 24, 2018

Book Review: 'The Blackhouse' by Peter May

Review by Susan Grigsby

The Scots all talk funny. Although they probably don't think so, they do. Their regional dialects are as distinct as are Americans. For other Scots, the Glaswegian accent can be harder to follow than a fast talking New Yorker is for someone from Charleston.

There are three different languages spoken in Scotland. The main language is English, with a Scottish accent, but there is also a separate, though similar, language known as Scots. It differs from English in some of the words that are used and in the phrasing of those words. The Glaswegian dialect heard above is part of the Scots language, as is the poetry of Robert Burns. Most Americans will recognize "Auld Lang Syne" even if they don't know what all the words mean.

Gaelic is the ancient language of Scotland and sadly, it is dying out, except in some isolated areas of the Highlands and the Outer Hebrides, despite attempts at revival. According to Wikipedia, an increasing number of those under 20 are now speakers of Gaelic so there is some hope that it can at least remain a spoken language in Scotland.
And it is on the Isle of Lewis, the largest northern island of the Hebrides, that Peter May has set his Lewis Trilogy. A Glaswegian by birth, he now lives in France, where he found an appreciative audience for this work that the big British publishing houses turned down. Although compelling, the Brits were pretty sure that there simply wasn't an audience for these deftly plotted haunting tales.
Most Gaelic speakers are in the Outer Hebrides, also known as the Western Isles, which are the dark green islands that look a bit like a tadpole, on the right hand map above. Isolated, wind-swept and beautiful, the Outer Hebrides archipelago is 130 miles in length and includes some 200 individual islands. 
They were wrong, and the reasons are below the fold.
The Blackhouse
by Peter May
Published by Quercus Books
February 1st 2011
386 pages

It was a brooding landscape that in a moment of sunlight could be unexpectedly transformed. Fin knew the road well, in all seasons, and had never ceased to marvel at how the interminable acres of featureless peatbog could change by the month, the day, or even the minute. The dead straw colour of winter, the carpets of tiny white spring flowers, the dazzling purples of summer. To their right the sky had blackened, and rain was falling somewhere in the hinterland. To their left the sky was almost clear, summer sunlight falling across the land, and they could see in the distance the pale outline of the mountains of Harris. Fin had forgotten how big the sky was here.
As soon as Fin Macleod was old enough, he escaped the island of his youth and fled to the University of Glasgow. Serving as a police detective in Edinburgh, he was sent back to the Isle of Lewis to assist in the investigation of a murder that bore a striking resemblance to one that had been committed in Edinburgh earlier in the year. The murder victim was the school bully when Fin was young, and possible suspects include many old friends.
And what would a return to one's childhood home do to a person other than trigger memories? From the moment he lands in Stornoway, the island's sights, sounds and smells reach out to Fin, sending him back to his childhood on this windswept island.
Through Fin's eyes, we learn so much of what it is like to grow up in this land where Gaelic is spoken at home but only English is allowed in the schools. A place where the Church rules the activities allowed on the Sabbath and the weather rules those at sea.
One of the island traditions is the annual trip made by a dozen men from Fin's home village in Ness. The men travel to Sula Sgeir, The Rock, an island 40 miles further into the North Atlantic in a fishing trawler, to harvest young gannets, known in Gaelic as gugas.
Considered a rite of passage for the young men of the villages, Fin and his best mate, Artair, make the trek themselves during the final summer that Fin was to spend in Ness. When Fin returns to Ness looking for a killer, preparations for the annual voyage are underway.
Peter May switches between third person limited point of view for the chapters covering the investigation, to first person in the chapters on Fin's childhood and teen years. It is a very effective manner of presenting background on Fin, his family and friends and the traditions of the island.

The characters are rich in this story, perhaps as a result of its structure. We are often introduced to them briefly in the present and then see them through Fin's seven-year-old, or seventeen-year-old eyes. We see them change and grow and better understand who they have become.
Which is a good thing because this is just the first of a trilogy that Peter May has written about Lewis. The other two books are The Lewis Man and The Chessman.
Before writing the Lewis Trilogy, Peter May was co-creator/writer/producer for the first major weekly television drama broadcast entirely in Gaelic.
In the 1990s, he co-created the ground-breaking "Machair," the first ever major drama serial in the Gaelic language, which he also produced.  "Machair" was described by Kenneth Roy, the television critic of the broadsheet Scotland on Sunday as:
"quite simply the best thing to have happened to television in Scotland for a long time."In spite of the fact that fewer than 2% of the Scottish population can speak Gaelic, the show - subtitled into English -  achieved a 30% audience share and made it into the Top Ten of programmes viewed in Scotland.
It was while working on "Mahair" that May spent five months out of every year, for five years, in the Outer Hebrides.
The landscape and the life there had a profound effect on May and have provided the inspiration for his Lewis Trilogy, and his connections were renewed when he returned to research the new books.
But the Outer Hebrides is not the only location that Peter May uses for his novels. He has a series of six books set in modern day China.
These page-turning thrillers combine cutting edge science, drama, wit, and engaging characters who grow and develop across the books. The key to the popularity of this series is the tempestuous relationship between the enigmatic Chinese detective Li Yan, and Dr Margaret Campbell, the acerbic pathologist from Chicago.
Scotsman Peter May has been winning praise for his vibrant portrayal of contemporary Chinese life and attention to scientific and medical detail. He is the only westerner to be made an honorary member of the Chinese Crime Writers' Association.
And a series set in France:
His latest series of books, The Enzo Files, is set in France.  Hailed by author Steve Berry as "intelligent... and ingenious", several reviewers have praised the cerebral nature of the cold case investigations tackled by the Scottish forensic scientist Enzo Macleod.  Realism and humour also feature and the endearingly flawed hero has deen described as "a cross between James Bond and Inspector Clouseau".  
In addition, his stand alone novels are placed in many different locations. His latest, Entry Island is set on an island in the Gulf of St Lawrence, 850 miles from Montreal.

In Virtually Dead, Peter May uses Orange County, CA. And the virtual world of Second Life.
Crime-scene photographer Michael Kapinsky is a man whose first life is in a mess. But his second life is about to get a whole lot messier. Staggering under the financial burden left by his recently deceased wife, Michael struggles to come to terms with her death—until his psychologist persuades him to enter a virtual world called Second Life to participate in a new kind of group therapy. Once there, his persona, Chas Chesnokov, discovers that victims whose crime scenes Michael has attended in the wealthy Southern California resort of Newport Beach have had their avatars clinically executed in the virtual world. Co-opted into the Twist of Fate Detective Agency, Chas embarks on an investigation with an exotic dancer and escort girl. They uncover a series of killings and a financial scam that is netting the murderer millions of dollars. And when Michael is tempted by money that mysteriously appears in Chas’s Second Life account, both his real and his virtual lives are in danger.
In order to research VIRTUALLY DEAD, Peter created the avatar of Flick Faulds in Second Life and opened a Private Detective Agency.  He worked for over a year as a private eye, mastering surveillance and tailing techniques and taking on real cases for clients from all over the world.  His cases included missing persons, marital infidelity, stalking and harrassment.  He had a hundred percent record of success.
In addition to his novels, Peter May has committed screenwriting and/or creating multiple television series. He is a brilliant writer and I look forward to reading more of his work. Which means you will get to read about them! His work has been shortlisted or won over a dozen awards, you can find out more at his website.

Editor's note: This review was originally published at the Daily Kos, which notes that its "content may be used for any purpose without explicit permission unless otherwise specified." The original page can be found here