Saturday 14 September 2013

The Lewis Man by Peter May

I am not sure why I put off reading this, the second in Peter May's Lewis trilogy that began with the superb novel, The Blackhouse. Perhaps I thought there couldn't be anything else that you could throw at its main character, Fin McLeod, without stretching the bounds of probability. But I needn't have worried, this is every bit as terrific - with Fin looking into a cold case, not as a policeman but as a friend of the prime suspect.
     It all begins when the body of a young man is found in a peat bog on the Hebridean island of Lewis. An archeologist is called in as people assume it to be hundreds of years old and might bring some fame to the island as a historical find, hence the title.
    But a tattoo on the corpse's forearm depicts Elvis Presley and suddenly the police are looking into a murder from the late 1950s. A DNA match connects the body with an elderly man on the island, who just happens to be Mr McDonald, Marsaili's father. (If you remember from The Blackhouse, Marsaili was Fin's childhood sweetheart.)
    Woven in with the story of Fin's return to Lewis and his plan to rebuild the old family house, is that of Tormod McDonald. The sons of a seaman killed in the war, John, as he was then, and his brother were sent to an orphanage in Edinburgh at the death of their mother. Little brother Peter has been rendered 'simple' following a brain injury as a small boy. John has promised his dying mother that he will always look after his brother, but the reader knows that Peter is probably going to turn out to be the Lewis Man, and so it would seem that fate has intervened. From what we already know of Mr McDonald, this is likely to have haunted him the rest of his life.
   Now suffering from dementia and living in a nursing home, the past creeps back slowly into his consciousness, while Fin and and local policeman, George Gunn, try to discover what really happened. Fin wants to prove Mr McDonald's innocence before a cold case team from the mainland descends on the island and treat the old man as their prime suspect. Their investigations will lead them south to Harris, over the water to Edinburgh and to Charlie's beach on Eriskay. There will be parish records and cemeteries to peruse.
   Peter May creates a vivid contrast between the big city and remoter corners of Scotland, with wind blowing the tussocky grasses, big open skies and distant horizons. There's not a lot of money about and even less in his evocation of John's 1950's childhood and the harsh treatment of orphaned children. His depiction of dementia, particularly how the past merges with the present to create a different reality for Mr McDonald, is sensitively done. Fin's awkwardness with Marsaili and her son continue to add an interesting dimension to the series. Whether there can be any future in these relationships will have to wait for the last book in the series, The Chessmen.

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