Monday 20 October 2014

The Chessmen by Peter May

The Chessmen is the third of Peter May's Lewis trilogy featuring former Edinburgh detective, Fin McLeod. In the first book, The Blackhouse, Fin returned to the island of his childhood to investigate a murder - a crime that turns out to be deeply personal and helps him decide to return for good. Now living with Marsaili, the girl he loved as a lad and never really forgot, and trying to reconnect with the son he didn't know he had, he has plans to restore his parents' house.
    But you can never really leave the force it seems, and Peter May throws a new case his way when a freak storm causes a 'bog burst', draining one Lewis loch of its water. Now a security officer for a landowner whose livelihood is under threat by large-scale poaching, Fin has been caught in the storm along with a small-time poacher and boyhood friend, Whistler Macaskill.
    Having sheltered from the storm in a hut, the two are astonished to discover that the empty loch is the resting place of the long lost plane belonging to their old friend and Whistler's fellow band player, Roddy MacKenzie. Roddy had disappeared in his plane fifteen years ago, when his band was at the height of its success. It was assumed he was lost at sea. The discovery of the body inside means finally a chance to bury Roddy properly but what is it about the discovery that so shocks Whistler that he vanishes into the wilds of Lewis? And what is it about the body that convinces Fin that the plane wasn't just Roddy's underwater tomb, but also a crime scene?
    There is a lot of backstory here, which May fills in with flashbacks to Fin's growing up and his time at high school when he first met Whistler, a flute player with a school band. The brains behind the band are Roddy and Strings, who write the songs, while the music is enriched by Mairead's haunting voice. She's also a bit of a stunner and gives her boyfriends the run around - usually she's with Roddy, but sometimes it's Strings, so you can imagine how that affects the band's cohesion.
    There's a heap of teenage hanging around, rushing off on clapped out motorbikes, experimentation and desperation to leave the island for the thrills of Glasgow and the wider world. Only Whistler - the smartest boy of his year - decides to stay and live the simple life, hunting for food, carving and doing odd jobs, while the rest of the crowd head off to university and life with the band.
    The back story switches back to the present and illuminates issues that dog the remaining characters on the island. Why is Whistler so difficult? And why won't his daughter live with him, preferring to stay with Kenny, something of a hard man and the guy Whister's late wife ran off with?
    May does a great job of shining a light on the little corners of the character's lives, the past and the present, to finally uncover what might have really happened all those years ago to cause Roddy to fly off in his plane for the last time. There's a lot to take in, and in the background is the island - its  beautiful landscape and problematic weather, the big lonely skies and the hemmed in quality it brings to the islanders' lives.
   You get to know a lot about Lewis, and its Gaelic language - there is luckily a pronunciation guide at the back of the book - and May includes some interesting history, such as the wreck of the Iolaire, when over 200 lives were lost. May really knows how to spin a yarn, and builds sympathetic characters, whose crimes are rooted in poor decisions taken at crucial moments, rather than out and out wickedness. This makes The Chessmen all the more moving and interesting, but doesn't stop May from throwing in a couple of big plot twists near the end.
    It's the last book of the series, but I am happy to finally leave Fin to get on with his life on the island and rebuild his family. There is probably only so much crime you can throw at a small place like Lewis, after all.

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