The Blackhouse by Peter May
I'll be honest and say that the setting was what attracted me to Peter May's The Blackhouse. I love the Scottish Western Isles more than anywhere else in the UK, possibly the world, and loved the idea of a creepy thriller set against the backdrop of the bleak beauty of the Isle of Lewis. And it would be unfair of me not to admit that May's portrayal of the island is extremely well-observed and atmospheric (albeit not particularly complimentary). Although a great deal of meticulous research has clearly been done, May never throws in detail for the sake of demonstrating this; there is no description or piece of island history that doesn't add something to our understanding of Lewis. It would also be unfair of me not to admit that it's extremely difficult not to keep turning the pages of The Blackhouse: I really did race through this book, which alternates a standard police whodunnit plot with first person flashbacks to Fin Macleod's largely unhappy Hebridean childhood as he is called back to Lewis from Edinburgh to investigate.
Ultimately, though, The Blackhouse just didn't quite deliver. To begin with, I struggled to believe in some of the characters. Fin Macleod is a grieving father whose eight-year-old has been killed only four weeks previously, but simply doesn't seem to remember this with anything like the frequency I'd expect, and although many of the characters are undoubtedly three-dimensional, they seem to move very rapidly from idle chitchat to shocking revelations in a way that I simply don't find credible. Peter May, apparently, begun his writing career in television, and I think perhaps this shows in the way he has written this novel - character development that might have been convincing on screen, portrayed with the right acting and direction, is simply too fast and too jarring here. A subtler, more organic approach would have been more successful. I also found the third-person sections, dealing with Fin's return to Lewis, a little lazy with regards to some pretty basic things like point of view.
The first person narrative is considerably more effective and also far more believable, perhaps because we're given the chance to see characters grow over time. Beginning with Gaelic-speaking Fin's first day at school, where he's told he must learn and speak English every day, and building up to his climactic rites of passage joining the sinister guga hunt, an annual trip to cull gannet chicks on a tiny barren rock of an island forty miles into the North Atlantic, these chapters are far superior to the police procedural plot strand, and certainly give the reader a fascinating insight into an island childhood and the odd claustrophobia of living in a tiny community. Fin's simultaneous dread and awe during the guga hunt (which is a real annual event for the Isle of Lewis) is evoked with particular skill.
However, when the two threads finally come together and the links between Fin's past and the brutal murder of the present become clear, again, we're back to a pace which makes it all seem rather cursory and rushed. There's a jaw-dropper of a plot twist, for instance, but it all seems to be thrown at us in something of a hurry.
There are many good things about The Blackhouse, but just a little more care and attention with character, plausibility and pace would have taken this book from a three-and-a-half star read to a five-star one. It appears, however, that this is to be the first in a trilogy, and I rather wonder if, as Fin's story continues, I'll find the things that I felt were missing from The Blackhouse. Despite The Blackhouse's faults, I suspect I'll still want to pick up the sequel for a long plane journey.