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The Blackhouse


I’m about 120 pages into The Blackhouse, the first book in Peter May’s Lewis Trilogy. I’ve intended to read it since Marilyn Stasio’s short review in her regular Sunday NYT crime novel roundup last November. She opens with:

Peter May is a writer I’d follow to the ends of the earth — which is where he takes us in THE BLACKHOUSE, the first novel in a projected trilogy featuring Detective Sergeant Finlay (Fin) Macleod of the Edinburgh police force. The setting is the windswept terrain of the Isle of Lewis, the northernmost of the Outer Hebrides, “a brooding landscape that in a moment of sunlight could be unexpectedly transformed.” Not a pretty place to be romanticized, given its foul weather, stagnant economy, rampant alcoholism and high suicide rate, but a “godforsaken bloody place” that deserves respect and even awe.

This is the same Isle of Lewis famed for its wondrous twelfth-century chessmen, who now reside at the British Museum and the National Museum of Scotland.


[From the British Museum website]

I can’t resist a tangent on them. The British Museum website informs us that

they were found in the vicinity of Uig on the Isle of Lewis in mysterious circumstances. Various stories have evolved to explain why they were concealed there, and how they were discovered. All that is certain is that they were found some time before 11 April 1831, when they were exhibited in Edinburgh at the Society of Antiquaries for Scotland. The precise findspot seems to have been a sand dune where they may have been placed in a small, drystone chamber.

Who owned the chess pieces? Why were they hidden? While there are no firm answers to these questions, it is possible that they belonged to a merchant travelling from Norway to Ireland. This seems likely since there are constituent pieces – though with some elements missing – for four distinct sets. Their general condition is excellent and they do not seem to have been used much, if at all.

By the end of the eleventh century, chess was a very popular game among the aristocracy throughout Europe. The Lewis chess pieces form the largest single surviving group of objects from the period that were made purely for recreational purposes. The question of precisely where they were made is a difficult one to resolve.

When Sir Frederic Madden first published the finds in 1832, he considered them to be Icelandic in origin. This argument has been repeated recently by Icelandic commentators on the subject. Other authorities have thought them to be Irish, Scottish or English. Each of these attributions is possible.

What is known with certainty is that the chessmen are vigorously northern in their character and are strongly influenced by Norse culture. This is most evident in the figures of the warders or rooks which take the form of Berserkers, fierce mythical warriors drawn directly from the Sagas. The historic political, economic and cultural links between the Outer Hebrides and Norway and its dominance of the Norse world might suggest that Norway is the most likely place to have produced these high status, luxury commodities.

I’ve never been to Lewis, but Peter May has me believing that I have, thanks to his superb descriptions of the landscape and skyscape. A quick look at the map of the UK will show you, as May repeatedly reminds us, that the weather comes straight in from the Atlantic, with no land in the way to soften the blow. The average high temperature in summer is 60 degrees, and the wind blows and blows. A review in the Scotsman two years ago notes that “award-winning Glasgow-born author Peter May is no stranger to the Isle of Lewis, and it shows in every thrilling chapter of this bleak, wild, atmospheric novel.”

Fin, our protagonist, grew up on Lewis, but went to school in Glasgow and became a cop in Edinburgh. Details of his life are emerging slowly, as he is asked to return to Lewis to help in the investigation of a murder. The first and third chapters are told in third person, at the present time. In contrast, the second and fourth chapters are told by Fin in first person, treating his first day of school as a young child and an incident in his teenage years. These portraits of island life are marvelously rendered gems, lifting the book well above whatever expectations one may have of crime novels. This is suggested as well in the conclusion to the review two years ago in The Independent.

A beautifully written, haunting and powerful examination of the darkness of men’s souls and how hard it can be to bury the past, The Blackhouse is also an outstanding page-turning murder mystery originally published in French.

Yes, it seems that May couldn’t get the book published in the UK, so turned to publishers in France, where he lives, succeeding in having it appear in French translation in 2009. It came out in the original English in the UK only in February 2011, and here in the US last fall. By now, volumes two and three of the trilogy—The Lewis Man and The Chessmen—have appeared in the UK.

Having had The Blackhouse on my reading list for so long, and on my Kindle since Joel bought it for me in December, I was pleased to finally get involved in it. But now that I’m enjoying it so much, I realize that on completing it, I won’t get to shorten my reading list. Instead, I will have to add its two successors. But that’s for another day. For now, I couldn’t be happier with the book I have.

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