The books that made up the Lewis trilogy: The Black House, The Lewis Man and The Chess Men by Peter May were a fascinating glimpse into life on a remote Scottish community. A combination of the bleak but evocative setting and intriguing and thought-provoking subject matter gave the series a legion of fans. May has now written a new standalone crime novel, Entry Island, which draws on some of the themes of his previous books.
Detective Sime Mackenzie is sent to Entry Island, a remote community 850 miles off the mainland Canadian coast. A wealthy inhabitant of the island has been murdered and the obvious suspect is the dead man’s wife, Kirsty Cowell, who was found with blood on her clothes. Mackenzie is accompanied by a French speaking team from Montreal that includes his former wife. At Entry Island he suspects that events are far more complicated than they originally seemed although his judgement becomes clouded by a shocking discovery about the break-up of his marriage, and signs that he and the Kirsty share a common ancestry.
Moving the setting to a remote Canadian community was a wise move for May. It breathes fresh life into his writing while allowing many of the themes he likes to explore, such as secrets from the past that carry through to the present, to be revisited. There were a couple of times when I thought I was reading the same story as the Lewis trilogy. Sime’s parents, for example, are killed in an accident which is reminiscent of Fin Macleod’s tragic history. May excels in split narratives although, in this book, I did prefer the present day murder hunt to the slightly extraneous story of Kirsty and Sime’s ancestors. The hunt for the killer on Entry Island is a classic murder mystery with a decent list of suspects and a satisfying conclusion.
My resolution this year is to read more standalone crime novels as I’m getting a little tired of series, although there are some that I’ll read the latest addition anyway. This was an excellent start to my ‘standalone resolution’.
Thanks to Quercus for my review copy.
Happy New Year to all readers of this blog. A brand new year and a new crime book to review, The Chessmen by Peter May, which is published tomorrow. The third book in the trilogy set on the Isle of Lewis, it brings to a conclusion the story of Fin Macleod, a former policeman whose son had been killed in a hit and run accident on the Edinburgh streets at the beginning on The Black House. In the trilogy Fin embarks on a journey of self discovery that sees a return to the isle of his childhood and him gaining an adult perspective on key moments in his formative years. It has been a characteristic of this series that extraordinary events that could seem too incredible, are incorporated into this island setting with ease.
In The Chessmen, Fin Macleod is now employed by Lewis landowner Jamie Wooldridge as head of security. There is a large scale poaching problem and Fin is confident that an islander is involved in the running of the operation. However, his immediate concern is his teenage friend Whistler Macaskill who has been living rent free in a croft cottage and undertaking poaching on a small-scale. Fin owes his life to Whistler and they share a family secret going back generations. Whistler’s erratic behaviour threatens Fin’s job and his physical safety. However, when a loch suddenly drains in the night, the plane of another teenage friend, missing Roddy Mackenzie, is found in the loch. With his head bashed in, it is clear that his death wasn’t an accident and there is a decades old murder to be solved.
The temptation when writing the third book in a trilogy must be to wind up the narrative threads in the previous novels. Although this happens to a certain extent, the main thrust of The Chessmen is thankfully a new mystery, that of the downed plane. There is something spooky about a body that has lain undiscovered for years, with shades of Donald Campbell in Coniston. As I have come to expect from May’s books, the solution is partly parochial combined with broader social themes.
Fin remains the troubled character that we first met in The Black House. Although his life has changed immeasurably, we get a sense of the eternal restlessness of Fin and of a life touched by tragedy. The other characters that we have come to know in the series also settle into new roles although in this novel I didn’t feel as engaged with the destiny of Donald, Marsaili and Fionnlagh as I had in the previous books. The setting though, as always is the major draw of this novel, and we get to see the wilds of Lewis’s remote mountains and lochs.
It’s a shame that this series has come to an end as I looked forward to each instalment. However, it does seem to have reached a natural conclusion and it will be interesting to see what Peter May decides to write next. I suspect he has attracted new readers (me included) through this series.
I received a review copy of this book via Maxine Clarke at Petrona which sadly will be her last gift to me.