The Blackhouse

black houseOn the Isle of Lewis in Scotland’s outer Hebrides, the abandoned blackhouses are useful for private trysts, but the 16-year-olds we meet in the prologue of this novel by Peter May don’t find the kind of privacy they seek when they enter the blackhouse by the shore. Instead, they find a body, hanging by the neck and eviscerated. Detective Inspector Fin Macleod, formerly of Lewis, is called in to assist in the case, which is similar to a murder he investigated in Edinburgh. Fin hasn’t been back to Lewis for 17 years, and he doesn’t want to go now. But he also doesn’t want to be at home anymore, trying to cope with the recent loss of his son.

On arriving in Lewis, the memories Fin has kept at bay for years keep coming back. He sees old friends and old enemies—the victim, in fact, was a bully from his school days. The book’s chapters alternate between the present-day story, told in third-person, and Fin’s first-person recollections of his childhood in the small village on the island. He remembers the victim, Angel Macritchie, well enough to know that plenty of people might want to see him dead, and as we see more of Fin’s memories, we understand why.

For most of the book, the crime story borders on dull. The suspects are, well, the usual ones—various people with grudges, a rabble-rousing outsider, and a priest with a dark past. (Because of course the priest has a dark past. Is there a fictional priest that doesn’t?)  Even Fin doesn’t seem that interested in the crime; he, like the reader, keeps getting distracted by his past, where the mysteries are far more mysterious. It’s lucky, then, that all that baggage from the past is connected with the mystery; otherwise, we’d get nowhere.

Fin has spent most of his adult life putting his past behind him, and he’s slow to reveal all the things that happened that have kept him away. We get hints of some misunderstandings, perhaps a tragedy or three. Much of the mystery centers on the annual guga hunt, when a group of men journey to a small island to kill young seabirds. The chapters that describe this tradition are harrowing, but fascinating. That would be true even without the dramatic events in Fin’s life that relate to his one firsthand experience collecting guga.

This is a book about the past coming back, but I couldn’t quite accept just how stuck in the past many of the characters seemed. The problem wasn’t just people following old traditions or never leaving home; it was the way the characters’ personalities and patterns of interaction seemed so thoroughly engrained, beginning from the characters’ very first day of school. It was almost as if the whole place and its people just froze in time, hardly growing or changing at all. I grew up in a rural area, so I know how that can happen, but this seemed too extreme. I think, though, some of the problem may have been Fin’s perspective, because even in the third-person sections, we see little beyond what Fin sees. Late in the book, when Fin finally talks to someone who considered the murder victim a friend, we get the idea that maybe not everyone is so locked in their old roles as Fin imagines.

The resolution to the mystery also helps explain why some of the characters seemed particularly bound by time, and it resolves much of my unease about a few much-too-coincidental developments. The ending leaned a little too hard on its shocking twist for my tastes, but I’m impatient with supposedly shocking twists. I’d almost rather know who the killer is from the outset and then work out the how and why as I go.

Still, even with these gripes, I found this plenty entertaining. It’s the first in a trilogy but feels complete on its own. Will I read more? Perhaps. I enjoyed it enough to feel that my time wasn’t wasted, but one of the challenges of being a reader is knowing that for every basically OK book I read, I’m using time that I could spend with something I’d love. So … we’ll see.

I received an e-galley of this book for review consideration via Netgalley.

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14 Responses to The Blackhouse

  1. realthog says:

    I’m with you on this. Despite the wall-to-wall rave reviews the book got, I felt that, while it was certainly good — and I really admired its ambition and its refusal to take any easy ways out — it somehow just wasn’t quite hitting the mark, wasn’t quite there.

    That said, I may very well read the next in the series in due course, because as I say I found a lot to admire in The Blackhouse

    A fine writeup: thanks.

    • Teresa says:

      It had some good stuff to offer, but there were just those few niggling things that kept me from fully buying into it. I’m glad I wasn’t alone it that.

  2. Ooh interesting… This book has been sitting on my kindle for the longest time and I keep putting off picking it up for some reason. Would you say it was worth reading even though you found it only so-so? I think I bought it because I got the second book in the series really cheaply and wanted to start from the beginning.. It’s interesting to read your thoughts on it!
    Great review!
    Rachel
    Dashing Good Books

    • Teresa says:

      It was certainly worth the time–it reads quickly and there are some really nice descriptions. I haven’t totally ruled out reading the next one.

  3. Carol S says:

    I loved this because I could really see and feel the Hebrides, learned a great deal from it and went on to enjoy the entire trilogy – so much so that I wished there were more. I appreciate Peter May’s writing and after being introduced to his work have subsequently relished the Chinese series, again wishing there were more. Peter May took me to everyday China so that it became another place to relish experiencing. (I began the Enzo detective series but that hasn’t grabbed my interest at all.).

  4. Jenny says:

    Father Brown is a fictional priest without a sordid past! :)

  5. Deb says:

    I just couldn’t get into this book. I gave it more than my usual if-it-hasn’t-grabbed-me-by-page-50-give-up because it had been highly recommended by someone whose opinion I trust, but it just didn’t grab me and I eventually did stop reading. I think it was those childhood flashbacks that ruined it for me–the children seemed to act and speak so much older than their age, I found myself checking back a couple of times to verify their ages. I like Ann Cleeves’s Hebrides-set mysteries a lot more.

    • Teresa says:

      I had the same frustration with the first couple of flashbacks, but as the characters got older, it wasn’t an issue for me anymore. But thinking about it now, the fact that they seemed too mature as little kids probably contributed to my sense that the characters never grew. They appeared, fully formed, at five or six years old.

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