Peter May’s The Black House is an introduction to an exotic and strange world. I picked it up thinking I would be reading a fairly straightforward mystery set in Scotland, on the Isle of Lewis. But what I learned was that the Isle of Lewis is so different that it might as well be a country unto itself. The plot and the protagonist sounded interesting, but when I read the book, I was even more interested in learning about the strange customs (everything is closed on Sunday, even the playgrounds; gannet hunts; etc.) and language and geography.
The book starts on a very melancholy note. Fin Macleod has just lost his son to a hit and run accident and his marriage is over. Then his boss transfers him to Stornoway on Lewis to investigate a murder that shares the same MO as one in Edinburgh. He’s reluctant, because he thought he had escaped the island eighteen years before. His parents died there. His old love is there. And there’s a whole lot of bad blood there, too. But its either go back or get a new job. When Fin arrives in Stornoway, he learns more about what happened to the people he knew in school than about the murder. No one seems to know anything.
May mixes the story of the investigation with flashbacks to Fin’s childhood and adolescence. Curiously, these chapters are told in first person, while the chapters set in the present are in third person. The first time May switched from present to past, I wondered for a sentence or two if there was a second protagonist. This switch makes sense when you get to the end of the book. Until you do, though, it gives the book an off kilter feeling. There’s clearly something wrong, but you don’t have enough information until much later exactly what that something is.
The ending of this book is rushed, I’ll admit. It makes sense for the most part, but everything happens in less than thirty pages or so. And I have to put the for the most part hedge into the last sentences because, to me, I don’t feel like May characterized the person who turned out to be the murderer quite the right way. It does make sense once you have all the facts, but the murderer hides his monstrousness so well that all I could detect was more of that offness that I got from the book in general. This isn’t a bad book. It’s atmospheric and interesting. I want to know more about Fin and what happens to him next, and not just because I want to hang out on the Isle of Lewis some more.