Crime Scene: PETER MAY The Lewis Man
This is the second novel in the ‘Lewis trilogy’, featuring Fin MacLeod as the detective brought back to his remote home island of Lewis, the northernmost point of the Outer Hebrides.
In The Blackhouse, MacLeod’s first outing, he is still in the police force, and he is called to Lewis because a murder there resembles a case he’s working on in Edinburgh. He assists Detective Sergeant Gunn, the resident policeman, in the investigation and has also to confront ghosts from his own past. His ex-girlfriend and the great love of his life, Marsaili, is now married to his best friend Artair and they have a son who, Fin will learn, is in fact his own child. Fin is still suffering from his own personal tragedy and now he has to confront old demons, come to terms with a son he hadn’t known about, face the consequences of his betrayal of Marsaili and also solve a gruesome crime. Blackhouse was first published in France as it couldn’t find an English publisher – it went on to win the Prix Intramuros (awarded by a panel of French prisoners!), the Prix des Lecteurs and the Cezam Prix Littéraire Inter CE. After it was published in English it became an international bestseller. Needless to say The Lewis Man was published straight into English.
The Blackhouse, with its edgy writing, lyrical description, authentic evocations of place and community and its classic noir theme of secrets from the past refusing to stay hidden, set up high expectations for the next volume, and these are more than met in The Lewis Man.
Fin has now retired from the police, he and his wife have divorced, and he has returned home to rebuild his family crofthouse and see if he can make a life for himself again on Lewis. Perhaps, knowing that Artair is dead, he also has hopes of rekindling his relationship with Marsaili and forming one with his son, Fionnlagh.
The islanders have resuscitated the old custom of peat-cutting in the face of rising power costs and a group of cutters finds the preserved body of a brutally murdered young man. His DNA shows that he is a close relative of Marsaili’s father, Tormad MacDonald, now in the later stages of dementia and recently kicked out of home by his wife. Marsaili enlists Fin’s help and he works with Gunn again to unravel the problem.
The novel is partly narrated by the old man, Tormad, as he both tries to make sense of his present life and retreats more frequently into fractured memories of his past. His voice is authentic and moving as he describes a life of foster-homes and Dickensian orphanages, changes of identity and child-exploitation, and remembers his heyday on the island:
I swing my legs over the side of the bed and wait for her to help me to my feet. It never used to be like this. I was always the strong one. I remember the time she twisted her ankle up by the old sheep fank when we were gathering the beasts for shearing. She couldn’t walk and I had to carry her home. Almost two miles, with arms aching, and never one word of complaint. Why does she never remember this? … I … look in the mirror. An old man with a scribble of this white hair and the palest of blue eyes stares back at me. I wonder for a moment who he is, then turn and look from the window out across the machair towards the shore. I can see the wind ruffling the heavy winter coats of the sheep grazing on the sweet, salty grass, but I can’t hear it. Neither can I hear the ocean where it breaks upon the shore … It must be the double glazing. We never had that at the farm. You knew you were alive there, with the wind whistling through the window frames and blowing peat smoke down through the chimney … The old man is looking at me from the mirror again. I smile and he smiles back. Of course. I knew it was me all along. And I wonder how Peter is doing these days.
The juxtaposition of third-person narrative for the main story and Tormad’s first-person recollections adds both texture and mystery. Tormad gives us hints of what Fin and Gunn can only try to painstakingly uncover, which contributes to the suspense as the story reaches its climax and the reader knows things that the investigators are only just finding out. The central mystery hinges on who Tormad really is, and through his narration we understand before Fin and Gunn do, as others piece it together as well and come for their revenge.
The story takes Fin back to Edinburgh and to Harris (the other half of Lewis) and the island of Eriskay, paralleling the journey of Tormad’s memory. Finally, back on Lewis, the pieces falling into place, Fin finds all that he loves in terrible danger.
Peter May is a lovely writer, whose vividly poetic descriptions of the island and its culture balance the fast-paced storytelling and the satisfyingly complex plot:
It is a social thing, the peat-cutting. Family, neighbours, children, all gathered on the moor with a mild wind blowing out of the south-west to dry the grasses and keep the midges at bay. Annag is just five years old. It is her first peat-cutting, and the one she will remember for the rest of her life … The sky fills her eyes. A sky torn and shredded by the wind. A sky that leaks sunlight in momentary flashes to spill across dead grasses where the white tips of bog cotton dip and dive in frantic eddies of turbulent air. In the next days the wild flowers of spring and early summer will turn the brown winter wastes yellow and purple, but for the moment they remain dormant, dead.
In this novel it is the peat-cutting that provides the background and trigger for the crime story, in The Blackhouse it was the annual gannet cull – both exotic activities to the contemporary urban reader and reminiscent of a simpler, harder past. There is something particularly attractive about these out-of-the-way places, isolated and weather-torn but achingly beautiful, that lifts these novels way above the ordinary and makes the crimes committed there more terrible by contrast. The description of the close-knit, dwindling communities, with their ancient customs, provides a fascinating picture of a disappearing way of life, parochial, conservative and stifling as it might be. The reader, immersed in this world by the fine writing, caught up in the emotional lives of the characters, can’t help feeling both nostalgia and a strong imaginative impulse towards the solving of the crime and the restoration of the status quo.
I want to find out what Fin will do next, how things will work out for him and Marsaili and the next generation, as much as I look forward to another finely constructed crime story. I can’t wait to be invited to this island world again.
Peter May The Lewis Man Quercus 2012 373pp PB $24.99
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