The Black House

  • Peter May
  • Silver Oak
  • 368 pp.

An Edinburgh detective is sent to investigate a brutal killing on the Isle of Lewis, where his police work gets tripped up by a flood of personal memories.

Reviewed by Lawrence De Maria

What The Black House is: well written, educational, innovative and character-driven.

What The Black House isn’t: a true thriller or mystery.

That’s not a fatal flaw, although it may present a problem for readers expecting either of those genres, and who may even feel misled by the publisher’s promotional material suggesting that The Black House is a police procedural.

True, the book’s protagonist, Fin Macleod, is an Edinburgh detective sent to investigate a brutal killing on the Isle of Lewis, the close-knit and hardscrabble Scottish community where he happened to be born. But police work soon takes a back seat to the flood of memories, some long-suppressed, that bedevil Fin, who is reeling from the tragic death of his eight-year-old child only a month earlier. Indeed, the detective’s assignment is an obvious ploy by his rather unsympathetic superiors to get his mind back on cop work. (The idea that a grieving father, whose marriage is also unraveling, is up to the task after only a month is a tad unbelievable.) As for the Isle of Lewis constabulary, other than some sympathetic underlings who take to the returning native son, they aren’t too thrilled to have an Edinburgh hotshot second-guessing them.

The murder victim? The widely and long-despised Angel Macritchie. Suspects? Apparently the entire population of the Isle, presumably minus Fin Macleod, although the detective himself was no fan of Angel when growing up.

The author, Peter May, knows his turf, or peat, or sod, whatever. He is a talented and prolific wordsmith, writer of several stand-alone novels and two series featuring other sleuths: the “China Thrillers,” with Beijing detective Li Yan and American forensic pathologist Margaret Campbell, and the “Enzo Files,” detailing the exploits of Scottish forensic scientist Enzo MacLeod. His descriptions of the geography and customs of the Scottish Western Isles in the Outer Hebrides, where this first of what is a planned Lewis trilogy is set, are encyclopedic. A scriptwriter before he turned to novel writing, May is a 15-year veteran of prime-time British television, a background that often shows, not always to good effect, in the sudden twists and turns of The Black House.

The novel is written in both the first and third person. The activities of Fin, the detective, are narrated. The recollections of Fin, the boy, are related in his own voice. Not surprisingly, the latter style makes for a more interesting read, since many of the characters (suspects, all) are developed and given motives through the recollections of the young Fin.

And what recollections! It would be unfair to reveal them, since that would give away too many secrets. Suffice it to say that the local custom of guga hunting, a bloody male rite of passage that entails going to a nearby rocky island to massacre helpless birds (gannets), may be one of the more pleasant memories Fin dredges up — other than adolescent sex romps in the barn and teenage pranks that go hilariously awry. Indeed, most of Fin’s memories would lead a reader to surmise that being a guga and having one’s neck wrung is not that much worse than growing up as a misunderstood teenager on the Isle of Lewis.

Bleak back story aside, it should be hard to like a novel in English that needs a crib for English-speakers. But that is not the case. Peter May conveniently supplies one at the start to help with the spellings and pronunciations. Amazingly, for a book full of characters named Coinneach, Fionnlagh, Mamaidh (pronounced Mammy!) and Slainthe mhath (yes, two words, pronounced Slange e vah, with three words), The Black House is something of a page-turner. That is testament to May’s evocative prose, aided by the fact that many of the details in the book will be new to American readers.

Not that they will be tempted to visit the Isle of Lewis any time soon, if Fin Macleod’s youthful experiences are typical: “And it troubled him to think of the boy on the rock, amongst the slaughter and the fiery angels and the wheels of dead meat.”

But lines that good provide hope that May will find a more consistent voice in the other books in this series. A writer of his caliber is a rare bird, or guga, if you wish, and deserves a wider audience.

Lawrence De Maria was a senior editor and writer at the New York Times and Forbes. His many front-page articles led the Times’ Pulitzer Prize-nominated coverage of the 1987 stock market crash. De Maria lives in Naples, Fla., where he writes novels and short stories, is a film and book critic, and lectures on financial journalism. His first novel, Sound of Blood, as well as his three previous novels are available through his website,

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