The Blackhouse by Peter May
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
“Knew, too, that it wasn’t just Mona he wanted to run away from. It was everything. Back to a place where life had once seemed simple. A return to childhood, back to the womb. How easy it was now to ignore the fact that he had spent most of his adult life avoiding just that. Easy to forget that as a teenager nothing had seemed more important to him than leaving.”
Detective Fin Macleod is sent back to the place where he was bred, born, burnished, and raised as an orphan. A murder has happened on the Isle of Lewis in The Outer Hebrides of Scotland in the very town Fin was from, Crobost. The murder has similar characteristics of brutality to a murder he has been working on in Edinburgh. He had only come back to the island for the funeral of his aunt since he left to go to school in Glasgow, so everything there is tinged in the sepia tones of the past. The tender threads that held his marriage together with Mona snapped with the tragic death of his son. The sorrows and desperations of his current life outweigh the dread of dredging up memories of his unhappy childhood. When you grow up in a small community, they remember everything you’ve ever done: the good, the bad, and the ugly. In some ways, you never escape the fallacies of your youth, when everyone’s memory is so long.
The irony is that he is going back to investigate the murder of Angel Macritchie, who despite his name was certainly no Angel. There is no one from Fin’s past who inspires more terror wrapped nightmares than Angel Macritchie. With a long list of grievances perpetrated against nearly every male member of the community and more than a few females, most everyone's a viable suspect, but then a brutish murder like this comes from more than just someone harboring a grievance.
This murderer is twisted and depraved.
As Fin investigates the murder, trying to find a motive that would fit such a crime, he also finds himself sifting through the debris of his own memories, his own failings, and those he hurt the worst as he flailed to adulthood. There is no one he hurt worst than the lovely girl from the farm who loved him from the first moment she laid those cornflower eyes on him...Marsaili. She is still on the island, now married to his best friend from school, Atair MacInnes.
”A blink of moonlight splashed a pool of broken silver on the ocean beyond. There was a light on in the kitchen, and through the window Fin could see a figure at the sink. He realized, with a start, that it was Marsaili, long fair hair, darker now, drawn back severely from her face and tied in a ponytail at the nape of her neck. She wore no makeup and looked weary somehow, pale, with shadows beneath blue eyes that had lost their lustre. She looked up as she heard the car, and Fin killed the headlights so that all she could see would be a reflection of herself in the window. She looked away quickly, as if disappointed by what she’d seen, and in that moment he glimpsed again the little girl who had so bewitched him from the first moment he set eyes on her.”
Fin treated her terribly. That’s what we seem to do to those who love us the most. Peter May gives us this relationship from the first flowering of love, through the lust, and onward to where we see the tearing apart of their entwined lives. Fin tries to explain the unexplainable.
”’Please,’ she said, almost as if she knew that he was going to tell her he had always loved her, too. ‘I don’t want to hear it. Not now, Fin, not after all these wasted years.’ And she turned to meet his eye. Their faces were inches apart. ‘I couldn’t bear it.’”
This reader couldn’t bear it either. Don’t you dare say it, Fin.
Because we know so much about Fin and the numerous times when he experienced crushing setbacks in his life, we can’t even condemn him. (Ok that isn’t completely true. I’m still pissed at him.) The one person who could have sustained him is still connected to the very island he was trying to escape. Marsaili washes back upon the shore of the Isle of Lewis as part of the debris that is the shipwreck of his life.
The Churches of Scotland dominate island life, each vying to be more severe than the next as proof that their sect is more religious than the others. Swings are tied up on Sunday so no child will be tempted to be lifted from the earth on the Sabbath. Belief in a higher being drowned by madness. This overbearing influence warps minds and deforms bodies under the crippling weight of guilt that can never really be forgiven, but must be carried on the soul like piles of jagged black stones. We must be reminded of our sins so we stay afraid of our creator.
There is a rock off shore called Sulasgeir, where ten selected men go each year to harvest the guga’s offspring. It is a bloody massacre, and fortunately, the government only allows them to take 2000 birds a year. The fledglings have to be the right age to taste the best. If they are too large or too small, they are allowed to live. Fin was a part of that group one year before he left for college. It is a dangerous experience for the men, among the craggy rocks that prove to be tinged with tragedy. Why do these men do it every year? Tradition? ”But Gigs shook his head. ‘No. It’s not the tradition. That might be a part of it, aye. But I’ll tell you why I do it, boy. Because nobody else does it anywhere in the world. Just us.’”
This book is so much more than just a murder mystery. I felt completely immersed in these people’s lives. I wasn’t always happy about it. There were times when it made me feel uncomfortable. I read this on the plane to San Francisco for a visit to Goodreads Headquarters, and I’m sure many of my fellow passengers wondered what I was reading that was making me grimace and squirm in my seat. Once on the island, Fin remembers things that were tamped down so deep they were nearly forgotten. He burns with shame at his own failings, laid so bare, and tries as best he can to fix the wounds he left in others as he tries to live with the lacerations that life has inflicted on him. There are twists and turns and revelations. By the end, I could not deny that Peter May has written a novel that I will never forget. Hebrides Noir.
”And then he felt it. The cold bite of iron, the movement of the ring as his fingers closed desperately around it, and held. And held. Almost dislocating his shoulder as the sea pulled and jerked, before finally, reluctantly letting go. For a moment he lay still, clutching the mooring ring, washing up on the rock like a beached sea creature. And then he scrambled for a foothold, and then a handhold, and the strength to propel himself upward before the sea returned to reclaim him. He could sense it snapping at his heels as he found the ledge of the rock…. He’d made it. He was on the rock, safe from the sea. And all that it could do now was spit its anger in his face.”
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