Posted by: Gary Niebuhr
In my blog on January 5th, I told the sad tale of how my brain failed me and I ended up reading The Dark Winter by David Mark instead of the book my best friend recommended to me. The good news, if you check out that blog, is that I liked The Dark Winter and can recommend it to you if you can remember the author and title.
Anyway, time has now allowed me to read the book my friend actually recommended to me as his best crime novel read of 2012: The Blackhouse by Peter May. No wonder this guy is my best friend because he has excellent taste.
The Blackhouse is the best novel I have read in awhile. Perhaps in part this can be explained by who wrote it. Peter May has been writing novels and television shows since 1978 including two series of crime novels: the China Thrillers featuring Beijing detective Li Yan and American pathologist Margaret Campbell and the Enzio Files series starring Scottish forensic scientist Enzo Macleod. Because I have not read May’s other works I cannot speak to their value except to tell you that in 2006 he received the Elle Grand Prix for the best crime novel, The Firemaker.
What I can tell you is that after creating story for over thirty years, he is a master craftsman. The Blackhouse is told in two time frames which the author is kind enough to separate with a different point of view. While some might think this could be off-putting, instead it works fine. May has also made the decision to reveal the details in this novel very slowly and very cleverly. Names are dropped, references are made, time goes back and forth. A patient reader who stays the course will be richly rewarded in the end.
The setting of The Blackhouse is amazing. While that may sound like hyperbole, the reality is that this story could not be told in another location. The story is tied to the Isle of Lewis, which sits off the coast of mainland Scotland in the Outer Hebrides. It is a wind swept and desolate environment; there is only one tree on the whole island. A rock in the ocean called An Sgeir within fifty miles contains the nests of gannets (or guga) and for the last five hundred years the residents of the Isle of Lewis venture out in the seas to collect the guga for delicious consumption. Everything that takes place in this novel is a consequence of the environment.
The basic plot of this novel is that an Edinburgh detective named Fin Macleod is just returning to work after a family tragedy that has caused tension between he and his wife Mona. Prior to the start of this book, Fin had been investigating a crime in Edinburgh that now has a parallel on the Isle of Lewis. He is told to get packing for the Isle and immedeiately he is torn: while he would like to get away from Mona he knows the Isle of Lewis holds bad memories for him as he was born there.
The rest of the novel is about Fin as a catalyst on the Isle of Lewis and is better left to be revealed by the novelist rather than the recommend-er. Let me say that I was so impressed with this novel that I will be speechless if we do not see it on the crime fiction award nominations lists this year.
Do not do what I did. Write this title down now. Read it. Use it in a book discussion soon. You will not be disappointed.