Book review: The Blackhouse

The Blackhouse By Peter May Quercus, 387pp, £11.99

An unusually warm, windless August night on the Isle of Lewis, and two loved-up teenagers, made brave by drink, disappear into a ramshackle boatshed. They have just a few minutes until the Sabbath dawn encroaches once again upon this most God-fearing of islands. But their hurried passion is interrupted by a gruesome discovery.

Hanging from a beam, strung up, and with intestines cascading to the vomit and blood smothered floor, is the corpse of Angel Macritchie, a local man who has spent the 30-odd years of his life making enemies on this insular crop of land.

The murder bears all the hallmarks of a recent killing in the centre of Edinburgh, a million miles from the harsh Calvinism of this weather-ravaged isle. It seems incongruous that the two could be linked, but Edinburgh cop Fin Macleod, a native of Lewis, is dispatched to his homeland to investigate.

Despite his reluctance to return to the island he had escaped almost two decades before for the bright lights and freedom of the mainland, Fin is grateful for the temporary respite from his life in Edinburgh.

Only a month before, things had been very different. Although frustrated by his job, Fin had been a devoted father and husband, living his adult life a world away from the harsh realities of day-to-day survival on Lewis. But tragedy had come knocking at his door. That happy life was over for good, and a plane ticket out of his misery was just what he needed.

There is an annual tradition on Lewis of hunting gugas, the young gannets that nest on the rocks, and which are a delicacy on the island and beyond. Once a means of survival, the hunt is now no more than a tradition, much protected by islanders and vehemently condemned by animal rights activists.

In an ancient rite of passage, 12 of the island's men spend a fortnight each summer on the notorious An Sgeir rock, 50 miles from civilisation and rising out of some of the world's most treacherous waters. Home for their stay is a blackhouse, where meals are eaten, makeshift beds made, and secrets shared.

But there are rules. What is said on the rock stays on the rock; what happens there stays there. Eighteen years ago, Fin was a reluctant passenger on the boat to An Sgeir, and the demons unleashed on that particular hunt still hang in the Hebridean air.

As Fin is forced to confront some terrible truths about his young life, the mystery of Angel Macritchie's murder is gradually unravelled, and the black glistening towers of An Sgeir continue to cast their long shadows. There are those who have remained on Lewis all their lives, and whose own sons now make the deathly pilgrimage each year; and there are others who used the transition into adulthood as a chance to flee the isle. But in this novel at least, nobody truly escapes - or at any rate, not for very long.

Award-winning Glasgow-born author Peter May is no stranger to the Isle of Lewis, and it shows in every thrilling chapter of this bleak, wild, atmospheric novel. During 20 years in television he spent a good deal of time on the island, filming the hit series Machair. Not only does this knowledge of the place and its people reveal itself in the characters, who seem to blend so effortlessly into the harsh land they inhabit, but May's background in screenwriting comes to the fore in the dialogue he writes, through which he manages to steer so much of the narrative.

I have only one criticism of this genuinely absorbing novel, and that is its final few pages. There is something about them that feels just a little rushed, a little clichd - as if the end credits threaten to roll just a few moments too soon and catch the writer off-guard. But the criticism is a minor one, and the rather abrupt conclusion certainly does not overshadow almost 400 pages of pitch-perfect dialogue and creepy, spine-tingling storytelling.

Although The Blackhouse is only published in the UK this month, it has been snapped up by publishers all over Europe, and has already been awarded a prestigious prize in France, the Prix des Lecteurs at the Le Havre festival of crime writing. And May is no stranger to literary recognition in his adopted home of France. His 2007 novel Cadavres Chinois Houston (published in the UK as Snakehead) won the Prix Intramuros, in which France's prison inmates vote for their favourite crime novel. If The Blackhouse is anything to go by, then it would seem the incarcerated of France have excellent taste.

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