Monday, 27 May 2013

Mystery Review: 'The Blackhouse' by Peter May

This is a book which purports to be a murder mystery set in the Isle of Lewis, in Scotland's Outer Hebrides, but don't be fooled. The murder is, for most of the book, almost entirely peripheral to the story, no more than an excuse for the protagonist, an island native returning to his homeland, for a long series of flashbacks to his childhood and an unearthing of past secrets. Well, 'secrets' is probably too strong a word for the revelations here, none of which are terribly surprising. Or interesting, come to that. It’s only at the end that the murder again becomes the focus of events and the author ties things together quite tightly.

Fortunately, there's still plenty to enjoy here. The prose is nicely evocative, although occasionally a metaphor gets a bit above itself and falls flat on its face. The characters are well-drawn, although those who stayed on the island seem to have weathered the years less successfully than the returning one, which smacks a little of wish-fulfilment. Still, the author has a neat way of sketching characters with just a few brief phrases. I liked the descriptions of the island itself, although there was way too much locational information for casual readers (we really don’t need every last street or building name).

There is one affectation in the writing which I found rather jarring. The present day events are written in the third person, while the flashbacks to the events of the protagonist's childhood are written in the first person. This felt very odd to me, since first person writing gives the story an immediacy and urgency which is out of kilter with the distance of years. I suppose the author was trying to create a stronger differentiation between now and then, or perhaps to suggest the self-absorption and selectivity of the childish viewpoint, but to my mind it would have made far more sense to put the childhood and adolescent sections in third person, as events viewed from a distance and with some adult perspective. Looking back on one's childhood is like viewing any past event. It's a part of history, and the people involved are only loosely connected to their present day selves. The revelations at the end do make this narrative choice more understandable, but it still grated on me.

The ending is always the deciding factor for me, and this one failed on a number of levels. It's outrageously melodramatic, for one thing, while still being sadly predictable and resorting to a variety of cheap tricks to increase the tension or to hide revelations until the designated moment. I'm not a big fan of the hero-must-spring-to-the-rescue school of storytelling, which seems to be obligatory these days in this kind of novel. And the big reveal of the murderer's identity and motivation - meh. Not terribly believable.

This is in many ways a reasonable read. I liked the setting, the local colour and the snippets of island life, although a bit more Gaelic and a little less criticism of the religion would have been an improvement. The author clearly has talent, and the story is well thought out, even if elements of it failed to appeal to me. In particular, the whole local-returns-to-home-territory trope is well worn, and this version of it, although nicely done, adds nothing new. As a police procedural, it is fairly ho-hum (although with a surprisingly graphic post-mortem), but it's still a nicely evocative tale of the Outer Hebrides, and recommended for that alone. Three stars.

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