The Black House by Peter MayThe Blackhouse (Lewis Trilogy, #1) by Peter May
Published by Quercus on January 5th 2011
Pages: 401

A brutal killing takes place on the Isle of Lewis, Scotland: a land of harsh beauty and inhabitants of deep-rooted faith.
A MURDER. Detective Inspector Fin Macleod is sent from Edinburgh to investigate. For Lewis-born Macleod, the case represents a journey both home and into his past.
A SECRET. Something lurks within the close-knit island community. Something sinister.
A TRAP. As Fin investigates, old skeletons begin to surface, and soon he, the hunter, becomes the hunted.

This is the first book in a trilogy set on the Isle of Lewis in Scotland’s Outer Hebrides. This series has actually been on my radar screen for a couple of years, but I hadn’t gotten around to it. Recently, I noticed that all three of the books had been released in the U.S. for kindle, so I decided to dive in. I’ve read the first two, and plan to tackle Chessmen some time in March.

Let me begin by saying that setting is really important to me in mysteries. It may, actually, be the most important thing that I look for when I’m choosing a mystery. I like my settings northern – I have a strong affinity to Nordic Noir and Tartan Noir, as well as books set in the U.S. in places like upstate NY, the upper peninsula of Michigan, Minnesota, and Montana. So when I saw that this book was set on an island in the Outer Hebrides, I was sold. I also strongly prefer police procedurals. I am not a cozy mystery reader – I like my mysteries more on the gritty side, and while I will occasionally read a book with a private investigator, I prefer legitimate law enforcement, and I generally dislike books where the amateur sleuth owns a cafe or a knitting shop, is a gardener, or where the author indulges in silly puns for his/her titles (i.e., “Sew Deadly” or “A Brisket, A Casket). Or that involve sleuthing animals.

Now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, this book was right up my alley. Peter May’s sense of place is impeccable. The Isle of Lewis is, in many ways, a place out of time. Progress is a long time coming to a hardscrabble island that is home to crofters who farm using the same methods that their grandparents did. There is little industry, and a lot of religion. It is a harsh life, marred by alcoholism and abuse and poverty, lived out in long dark days and nights. The focus on the characters meant that the mystery took a bit of a backseat to both geography and ethnography.

If you want to see more picture of the Outer Hebrides, I’m linking to an article in The Daily Record. Quercus, the publisher of the Lewis Trilogy, published a companion photography book of the locations in the Outer Hebrides referenced in the Lewis Trilogy. The article has a slide show, and I strongly recommend clicking through, as the pictures are so beautiful that words really don’t do them justice.

May spent a lot of time on the Isle of Lewis integrating himself into the lives of villagers, gaining their trust and a more than surface understanding of their lives. It shows through in this book, as well as in the next, The Lewis Man, which is frankly even better. The sense of place is so vivid that I could picture it in my mind.

If I have one complaint about the book, it is the use of a particular plot device that I find unconvincing. I can’t explain more because a major plot point rests upon the device, and revealing it will spoil the book. Having said that, this is just a quibble. A plot preference that didn’t mar the overall experience of reading this book.