Book review: The Chess Men by Peter May

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CAN there be a setting for a detective novel more dark, haunting and suitably bleak than an island in the Outer Hebrides?

The Chess Men, by Peter May

Quercus, £14.99

It is that setting which anchors Glasgow-born Peter May’s The Chess Men, the third in his trilogy following Fin Macleod, a detective for whom the pull of his homeland, Lewis, is too powerful to resist.

In the conclusion to the trilogy, Fin is no longer a police officer, but works as head of security on a private estate, a job which brings him back into contact with an old school friend, Whistler Mac­askill, a poacher who knows every blade of grass on the ­island.

In a surreal opening chapter, the two men come across a loch, or at least the remnants of it. Its contents have vanished, leaving just a basin of sludge, at the centre of which is a small plane containing the body of Roddy McKenzie, another school friend, who has been presumed dead since his plane went missing 17 years ago.

The discovery prompts Fin to think back over the people and experiences which bound the three men together as teenagers; the woman they had loved, the fist fights, the close calls and – perhaps most of all – the island itself. As teenagers, the group were united in their desire to get off it. By middle age, all were drawn back or had never left.

Vivid descriptions of the barren landscapes and cruel weather are a poignant backdrop for a melancholy tale in which it feels like there can be no winners, no sun breaking through the clouds. The promise that life beyond the island once held for a gang of teenagers has evaporated for each one of them and there’s a sadness that hangs over the prose like low clouds.

Interspersed with flashbacks to more optimistic times, when Fin worked as a roadie for Roddy’s band, the book meanders along fairly sedately, every­one operating in a state of functioning unhappiness, while Fin unravels the mystery of Roddy’s death, and realises, too late, what its ramifications will ultimately be. «