The Blackhouse

//by Peter May//published 2012//

BlackhouseCoverOh, wow, I don’t even know where to start!!  I picked up this book because of FictionFan’s review of the third in the trilogy, and her review of The Blackhouse can be found here.  I am super glad that her enthusiasm won me over, because The Blackhouse was a thoroughly gripping tale, and I can hardly wait to read the other two in the series.  Also, you should totally read her review either way, since she has a knack of being significantly more coherent than I am when I’m reviewing books I really liked.  :-D

Our protagonist is Fin Macleod, a detective in Edinburgh whose personal life is going through a bit of a rough patch.  When a murder occurs on the Isle of Lewis, where Fin grew up, his superiors send him off to see if there is any connection between the Lewis murder and one that occurred in Edinburgh a few months earlier, as the initial MO seems to be the same.  Fin is reluctant to return to Lewis, but as he reconnects with the people and places of his childhood, he begins to see that this murder and his life may be more entwined than he first believed.

First things first:  I really, really like Fin.  He’s just a solid, steady sort of fellow, with a quietly snarky sense of humor and a strong sense of justice.  While he has a lot of problems, he’s working through them like a man, not wallowing in them like a whiny baby.  Fin isn’t afraid to admit when he’s done something wrong (although he doesn’t mind taking the credit when he’s right, either :-D).  I just really, really liked Fin, and that made this whole story work for me.  I wanted to know more about him and his childhood and his life.  I really wanted things to work out for Fin.

Okay, so, this story starts out in third person, but then, chapter two, suddenly switches to first person – Fin, recalling an episode from his childhood.  At first, I was a bit confused.  It seemed weird.  But it only took a few pages of the first person narrative to make me realize that I liked Fin even more, and I found myself flipping through the rest of the book to see if the narrative alternated back and forth – and was pleased when I found that it did.  Present day events in third person, past events from Fin’s POV.  It sounds like it ought to be disjointed and choppy, but it’s actually brilliant.  May manages to insert Fin’s recollections at very natural points in the present-day narrative.  The first time occurs when Fin is on the plane getting ready to land on Lewis.  I felt that I was reading Fin’s thoughts/memories from that exact moment – the memories that would naturally come to him as he returned to the island for the first time in nearly twenty years.  And it stays that way throughout.  May never makes a stated connection (e.g., “As Fin drove across the countryside, his thoughts drifted to the day  he first met her….  I met her on a rainy day…”), but every time Fin’s recollections take place, it’s at a natural gap in the present-day narrative, at a point where learning more about Fin’s past is exactly what ought to happen.

The secondary characters in this book are very well drawn, as well.  As we meet people from Fin’s past, May does an excellent job of contrasting them, via Fin’s memories, with their youth and where they are now.  Somehow, this made the present-day narrative much more emotional and engaging, as we slowly see what events shaped the people into who they are now.

In a weird way, the mystery is almost to the story of Fin as a person.  It’s almost as though the mystery is here simply as a catalyst for Fin to discover things about himself.  I felt the story was far more about Fin than it was about who murdered the victim.

One thing, however, I did not like about this book was a rather unnecessarily lengthy and detailed explanation of the autopsy of the murdered victim.  It was bad enough to have to listen to descriptions of this brutal death (I especially found the continued emphasis on how fat the victim was, and how his rolls of fat where hanging down, etc. to be quite off-putting, simply because they didn’t feel particularly necessary??)  But ten pages of chopping this guy up seemed a bit much (maybe especially because I happened to be trying to eat dinner during that chapter??).  However, I resorted to an old trick of mine – I skimmed through and only read where there was conversation.  In third-person narratives of this sort, most important information will be imparted through conversation, not the description.  Worked like a charm.  ;-)

Of course, I also wasn’t a huge fan of the way in which May presents religion:  a dark, dank, dated drug that sucks the joy out of everyone’s lives and forces them into a slavery of tradition, judgment, and gloom.  The only even somewhat-happy people are the ones who are, either secretly or opening, defying the church and living life free of those horribly shackling rules.  Anyone who is a “genuine” believer is a hypocritical, angry grouch.  I guess I wouldn’t mind so much if it wasn’t (per usual) that 100% of church people are horrid, and the only way they can be not-horrid is by leaving behind that ridiculous fairy tale of a religion that they know, deep inside, really isn’t true.  It is frankly insulting.  (Imagine if I wrote a book in which an entire group – take your pick – a certain race or gender or virtually any religion other than Christianity – was 100% portrayed as confused, cruel, ignorant, arrogant, angry fools??  How well would that go over? Yet it seems to be expected of any time the Christian church is involved in a story.)  Ah well.

In many ways, this story is a bleak one.  The whole story felt like it was written in black and white.  It is a book of stark contrasts, of people who have survived, but who have survived at a cost.  Life on the Outer Hebrides is not for the weak of heart.  May does a masterful job of writing of Fin’s slow realization that as much as he wanted to escape from Lewis, he still feels that pull toward home – even though he has no family left there – that calls us all back to the place we were born, the place that somehow helped to make us.

This book was definitely a 5/5 read and highly recommended.  It is gritty, intense, and thoroughly engaging.