Book review: The Lewis Man

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THE Lewis Man is the second novel in Peter May’s Lewis Trilogy, It is a crime novel in that the discovery of a body in a peat bog sets the narrative going, but like all the best crime fiction its interest is not restricted to the investigation.

It’s about the weight of the past, failed relationships, lives gone wrong and the ill-treatment of children. It may also be called a hymn in praise of the beauties of the islands and the miseries of their weather. There is a great deal of description of landscape and the elements, too much perhaps for some tastes, but you can always skim these paragraphs.

The body is first thought to be a couple of thousands years old, because peat preserves bodies from decay. It is only when a tattoo on an arm is discovered that the police realise they have a murder investigation on their hands, for the tattoo features Elvis Presley and his song Heartbreak Hotel, a hit from 1956. DNA will link the corpse to an old man, Tormod Macdonald, but Tormod, now suffering from dementia, is believed to have been an only child with no known relatives.

Fin Macleod, recently retired from the Lothian & Borders CID, following the death of his son Robbie in a hit-and-run accident and his subsequent divorce, has returned to his native island and his parents’ ruined croft. He involves himself in the investigation because Tormod’s daughter, Marsaili, was his first love, and he is indeed, as we soon guess, the father of her son, Fionnlagh. Fionnlagh, though still at school, is the father of a daughter; the mother is the daughter of the local minister, a boyhood friend of Fin’s, now turned intolerant bigot. The minister is protective of his daughter and hostile to Fionnlagh. Their story is a subplot which will break frighteningly into the main one.

This is developed on two lines: Fin’s investigation which takes him back in time, across Lewis and to Eriskay and then to Edinburgh; and Tormod’s memories. It is known, of course, that sufferers from dementia can retain clear memories of distant years while being hopelessly confused by the present. Whether these memories form themselves into clear and vividly detailed narratives may be more questionable.

Nevertheless, one may accept as a literary device the narrative chapters devoted to what goes on in Tormod’s mind and the recapture of his childhood in a harsh Edinburgh orphanage from which he was dispatched by nuns, with his retarded brother Peter. Certainly the scenes set in the orphanage in the Dean Village are moving. They also provide the frightening incident which triggers the main plot.

The denouement of the plot is melodramatic and depends highly on coincidence. It tests the reader’s credulity, especially in the final scenes. Nevertheless this is acceptable. It is the Buchan recipe: a plot which is improbable but stops just short of the impossible.

Like Buchan again, May recognises that a novel of action is enriched by scenes in which the action pauses. One of the best details an evening Fin spends, after a violent incident, with the minister, in which they recapture some of their long-broken friendship and approach a better understanding of each other.

There is another particularly good scene in Edinburgh when, in their search for the truth of Tormod’s past, Fin and Marsaili meet another old inmate of the Dean home for orphans.

Crime novels may be primarily entertainments, but the best ones always offer something more. Fin’s investigation of this long-buried crime forces him to make a reassessment of his own life. It challenges his withdrawal from the world and the self-pity that is corrupting him.

The theme of the novel is responsibility for others. It may be set mostly on an island, but its message is that of Donne’s famous sermon: “No Man is an Island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the Continent, a part of the main … Any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in Mankind …” This is what Fin learns, or learns about himself once again.

The climax of the novel may be violent and grotesque, but at the heart of the story is the importance, even necessity, of the domestic affections. So a novel which starts with the discovery of an old, generally unremarked, and brutal murder ends, not only in blood, but also in reconciliation. Order is restored.

The Lewis Man by Peter May

Quercus, 373pp, £12.99