There's something special about crime novels set in cold climates, and it usually involves grisly murders and a creeping sense of menace. I expected this of Peter May's book, The Blackhouse, and for a start it seemed my suspicions were well founded. The book opens with the grim discovery of a body in a boat shed by a young amorous couple, who are out looking for somewhere to be, well, amorous.
Next we meet grieving Edinburgh DI Fin McLeod on the day of his return to work following the death of his little boy a few weeks earlier. He is sent to the Outer Hebrides island of Lewis to investigate the murder, which has striking similarities to one in Edinburgh. He's a competent detective but on top of that he has local knowledge. Lewis is his childhood home, which he left in his teens, and Fin hasn't been back since.
On Lewis he is made to feel the interloper by the officer in charge of the case, abrasive Glaswegian DCI Tom Smith, who believes there's no connection between the two cases and doesn't want Fin sticking his beak in. Of course that isn't going to happen. Fin soon finds all sorts of questions to ask, particularly as he knows the people of Lewis so well.
The death of a man who he remembers as the school bully stirs up a past that has many a dark secret. These include the tragic deaths of his parents and awkward relationships with schoolmates, particularly best mate Artair and his first true love, Marsaili.
From there, the novel see-saws between the current murder investigation and interviews with locals, and scenes from Fin's childhood that helpfully explain why Fin might have wanted to leave the island all those years ago. Oddly enough there are more grim events lurking in the past than those related to the murder.
Connecting past and present is the yearly cull of young gannets on the remote island of An Sgeir, a rocky outcrop that is home to seabirds and little else. Every year twelve lucky men make the hazardous pilgrimage to An Sgeir to harvest the gannet delicacy, which is a kind of rite of passage for adolescent males. Fin himself made this journey in his last summer on Lewis, an event that changed his life.
The trip is just about to go ahead when Fin returns, and on board will be Artair, his old friend, and Artair's son. This is where the creeping menace starts to weasel its way in - as events of the past finally catch up to those of the present and an exciting showdown is in store for the reader.
The Blackhouse has a gripping storyline that grabs you by the throat and won't let go. Sometimes it seems unimaginable that so much can happen to a young lad on an island settlement like Lewis. What makes the book work is the author's sure touch with setting and characters. This is the first of three books involving Fin McLeod on Lewis and I am looking forward to journeying back to the island for more.