Review: Peter May – The Black House

Every now and then you pick up a book that is impossible to put down. You start reading it and then everything else falls by the wayside until the story is finished. Sometimes, however, the quality of writing isn’t up to the pace of the narrative and you feel guilty for a wasted day. This wasn’t the case with Peter May’s The Black House which combined excellent plotting with some beautiful descriptions of the Isle of Lewis . It was a book I read purely because of an excellent blogger review from Maxine at Petrona and I’m kicking myself that I nearly missed it.

DS Fin Macleod of the Edinburgh police is mourning the death of his young son and the breakdown of his marriage. He is sent to the Isle of Lewis, the place where he was born and raised to see if a recent murder in Stornoway is connected to a similar killing in Edinburgh. Fin hasn’t set foot on the Isle since his aunt’s funeral years earlier and the trip is infused with memories from the past and an event that caused a savage break with the island.

There is so much going on in this book that it’s hard to know when to stop with the precis of the plot. It is rooted firmly in the crime fiction tradition. There is a murder, with a possible link to another event and an investigation that takes many twists and turns. The detective has many of the characteristics that we would expect from a lead character, although interestingly no side-kick. His associate in the murder investigation is his memory which propels him into the past. I was very impressed by how the passages in the past were presented. The narrative changes from the third person to the first person and back again, marking the shift in time. This is another book written for the intelligent reader.

The story is wonderful. It describes an upbringing in a time that is almost lost. It wasn’t idyllic given the tragedies in the young boy’s life but the narrative effectively conveys the friendships and feuds that make up a childhood in a small rural community. The description of the hunting of the gugas (the annual gannet hunt on the island of Sula Sgeir) provided an interesting metaphor for the clashing of traditional ritual and modern progress and was also an atmospheric backdrop to the tensions in the plot.

It’s hard to find any criticisms of this book. I suppose the sheer amount of events that happened in the life of Fin almost but not completely stretched the imagination. I wasn’t completely convinced over by the repressed teenage memories that weren’t revealed until the book’s conclusion but again this didn’t detract from the plot. It was a great find and thanks to Maxine at Petrona I now have the second book in the series, The Lewis Man ,to get my teeth into. I just need to clear a day to read it.

Other (universally glowing) reviews are at Eurocrime, Bookgeeks and The Lit Witch.

15 thoughts on “Review: Peter May – The Black House

  1. Lovely review. I suppose George Gunn, the local policeman, was a sidekick occasionally, but as you say the book is about just Finn at its core, and how his past and present come to a head in more ways than one. I really liked this book too, and had been putting it off for a while, not sure why. I’m glad I read it, and think The Lewis Man is as good.


    1. I’d forgotten about George Gunn, which says something about his prominence in the narrative. I could see him reappearing in future books and he is a sort of side kick. Thanks for reminding me.


  2. Margot Kinberg

    Sarah – An excellent review! This is one I’ve been wanting to read since I read Maxine’s review as well, and just haven’t got to it yet. I must remedy that. Soon.


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  10. There is a story about St Ronan’s sister, Bruinhilda, who was found dead in a bothy with a shag’s nest in her ribcage. So “sister” in this context means brother and sister (siblings) or nun and monk? I have just finished this book and it is quite a good one. Many thanks!


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