I learned early on in my crime fiction reading that, although I love series, it was not a good idea to read straight through any author’s oeuvre. In my younger days, discovering a great author that somehow I’d missed, I would read through from Book 1 to Book 10 (or more). By Book 5, I would find myself a bit bored, as every author follows certain patterns which become repetitive. The recurring themes, character traits and events, even in different guises, are not so obvious when there are time intervals, and other novels, between each of the books in a series. In fact, these very characteristics are familiar and welcome, not boring, when there has been some distance. It’s like a favorite food, which would quickly lose its appeal if served for every meal, but is happily anticipated when saved for special occasions.
It was with some trepidation, then, that I decided to read Peter May’s Lewis Trilogy (The Blackhouse, The Lewis Man, and The Chessmen) in quick succession, with no other novels between. Several customers had come back to me for the second and third entries in immediately after reading the first, and told me that they were, of course, willing to pay a little extra for the UK versions, as only The Blackhouse was available here. They weren’t about to wait for whatever drives publishing schedules and keeps some of the best books out of American readers’ hands for what seems like eternity. (That’s a topic for another blog, but I will say that when this week a reader brought me used Canadian editions of all of Camilla Lackberg’s many books, I considered that a little smuggling across our northern border might be a good business plan.)
My decision to read straight through the trilogy was also motivated by an unfortunate pattern that has developed in my reading life since I chose to “break up” series. The number of intervening novels seems to increase as I discover more and more good authors. There are now stacks of unread series, in chronological order, only the first of which I have actually read. This time I would finish a series; there were only three books. In reality, I would have made the same decision after reading The Blackhouse; I wanted more. As one customer of mine responded when I e-mailed her that I could get The Chessmen from the UK, but it was only in hardcover and a bit pricy: “I want it! I want it now!” (signed) “Greedy Gert.” The books are that good.
The Lewis Trilogy takes place in the northern Hebrides, on the island of Lewis and Harris. The detective is Fin McLeod, who was raised on Lewis, but has spent 18 years in Edinburgh, most of them on the police force. He left the island never wanting to return. In The Blackhouse he is ordered to go back because a murder has taken place on Lewis that is similar to an unsolved case in Edinburgh. Fin’s return stirs up memories that haunt him, and are ultimately tied to the murder. May brings the past into the present by inserting first person chapters into the narrative; we are in third person from Fin’s point of view, and then we are seeing Fin’s childhood as he lived it. The events of the past that affect the present are realities, not memories; it’s an amazingly effective technique.
The Lewis Man opens with the discovery of a body in a peat bog. At first it is thought that it may be hundreds or thousands of years old, but examination reveals an Elvis Presley tattoo on the forearm. Recent enough to warrant investigation! DNA (taken from all the residents during the investigation in Book One) reveals that the corpse is closely related to an elderly man with severe dementia, who has always claimed to be without relatives. His fogged memories and perceptions are the first person chapters in this book, again throwing out clues from the past to the reader, of which the detective is unaware. Fin has quit the police force and returned to live on the island, realizing that it is where he belongs, and becomes an unofficial assistant in the investigation.
The Chessmen involves the discovery of another body, this one of the former leader of a popular band who had disappeared years earlier, at the bottom of a loch which has drained overnight (apparently this really happens.) Again, the events of the past, seen through Fin’s eyes, are the triggers for current crimes.
In each of these stories, different characters come to the forefront, but they have all known each other for their entire lives, and their histories have been intertwined for generations. Although each novel stands on its own, the whole trilogy is more of a saga of the island than a series of individual events or crimes. The investigations and resolutions of the crimes are some of the best I have ever read; the clues are parceled out, and the reader gropes to put the pieces together along with the detectives. The effect of past events on current lives, the secrets kept, and the resentments nurtured over years keep the reader turning pages.
Peter May was born in Glasgow and is not a native of the Hebrides. He spent five months of each of five years there, producing a television series being filmed on location. It is obvious that he is fascinated, if not in love, with these islands, and his descriptions of the landscape and weather made me feel the chill wind and rain as I read. He tells his tales of murder while giving us a picture of the traditions, customs, and daily life of the residents. The strictness of the religion, a yearly bird hunt on an isolated rock in the Atlantic, the speaking of Gaelic in the homes – all give us a picture of a partially isolated community where protection of one’s neighbors can keep dangerous secrets deeply buried.
I would recommend reading these three books close together, and definitely in sequence. The atmosphere grows, the details from early events have repercussions, and we see this segment of Fin’s life, his return to face the ghosts he ran away from, as a whole, with issues resolved and a sense of moving on. The pieces are not all neatly tied up, because life is never that neat, but there is a sense of completeness. The trilogy is really one very long novel, and a very satisfying one.
(Note to American readers: As of this writing, only The Black House is available in the U. S., in hardcover; the paperback will be available in August. The Lewis Man will be published in hardcover here in September 2014. The Chessmen -- God knows when. All 3 have been available in paperback in the U. K. for quite a while. I suggest you ask your local independent bookstore about importing them, or wait to read the whole thing in 20??)