A policeman who has faced a personal tragedy and whose family life is in shambles. Check. A policeman who has to go to his hometown (from where he escaped years ago and has cut off all contacts after that) to investigate a murder. Check. A hometown where everyone knows everyone but certain things are best left unsaid. Check. A back story where the policeman and his friend strive for the attention of the same girl. Check. With all these in place, Peter May's 'The Blackhouse' does not start on a promising note. To add to it, the back story of the protagonist, 'Fin Macleod', is narrated in first person by Fin himself, which also seems jarring initially.
Due to murder in 'Isle of Lewis', which seems similar to the one that occurred earlier in Edinburgh, Fin, who was part of the original investigation is asked to go to his hometown to check if both are related. The head of investigation at Lewis doesn't want him around, but Fin does some investigation anyway, with several of his activities relating not to the crime, but to the events of his personal life.
The novel finds its footing in this part. We see 'Lewis' a place, whose harshness and bleakness seems to have seeped into the lives of the people who still live there. We learn more about the Fin's life, the events that drove away from Lewis and finally his lover. We feel the biting cold of the sharp winds, the incessant rain, the sluggish roads, see the landscape of terrible beauty, a landscape which is both forbidding and inviting at the same time, ready to reward the person who can master it, but at the same time eager to trip him if he relaxes even a bit. The trip where, the characters set sail to 'An sgneir' island for the annual harvest of birds
is an example. The black cliffs, rough waves crashing against the shores, the flock of birds rising, the desolation of the place everything is brought out extremely well.
This is a story of the follies and arrogance of youth, wanting redemption but not knowing how to about it and above all the usual but still always sad tale of abuse of power and above all abuse of trust. There is an interesting narrative style in the novel. Peter explains first the end result of an action, then a few pages or chapters later explains the route which by which the end result was arrived at. For e.g. X could be alive at one point in the novel, suddenly he is mentioned as dead further in the novel, then after a few pages we learn as to how X died. This technique plays around with the reader, as as we are unsure about a lot of things, like say why Y feels guilty about something, why Z acted the way he did.
This novels works more as a study of human emotions in harsh conditions (both in terms of the landscape and the quality of life) than as crime fiction. The writing is good in parts and the characters are defined well enough, but you never get the certainty that one is reading a crime fiction. There are parts where Fin seems to be off on his own journey trying to face the demons of his past, but suddenly comes up with a plausible explanation to exonerate a suspect. It is at such points, that we that we are reminded, that yes this is a crime fiction and Fin is investigating it. The motive being the crime is well fleshed out, but the manner in which the perpetrator goes about it requires a lot of suspension of disbelief. But the novel has enough in it to engage the reader and make him look forward to the other 2 novels in this series which are also set in Lewis island.