The Blackhouse – Peter May

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The Blackhouse Peter MayEdinburgh-based detective Fin Macleod is reeling from personal tragedy when he is sent back to his childhood hometown of the Isle of Lewis.  There in his quiet town, he must help investigate a murder that is eerily similar to one he was investigating in Edinburgh several months before.  But Macleod has bad memories of his life on Lewis, and as the story moves, we learn just what Macleod was escaping when he left Lewis 18 years before.

The first in the Lewis Man trilogy, I was expecting great things from Peter May’s novel.  Unfortunately, the book only really came together in the last twenty or so pages, leaving me wondering just what he was trying to accomplish through most of the book.  While The Blackhouse looks and sounds like a crime novel, it really is more of a character-driven drama that just happens to center on a detective.  The bits that would fall more into the crime genre were cliché, almost carbon copies of things Ian Rankin and other Scottish crime authors have already done.  Rocked by personal tragedy? Check.  Bad marriage?  Check.  Hometown he wants to forget?  Check.  First novel includes a crime that is personal and vindictive against the detective?  Check.  Sound a bit like Knots and Crosses to you?  Except Fin Macleod is mostly a shallow, one-dimensional character that hardly grabs your attention or your sympathy, until that last portion of the book.

In fact, most of the characters in The Blackhouse felt contrived and as if they were cardboard cut-outs.  The only character with real dimension was the landscape of Lewis.  The long, florid descriptions provided you with a very detailed visual of what the treeless island looks like.  The only issue is that the book is not a travelogue, though so many passages are dedicated to the landscape that you might believe it is meant to be.  I found myself skipping over the landscape portions after the beginning of the book, as it only stalled the momentum of the novel.  While there are some authors who have a talent of making landscape come alive, May was not particularly adept at this task.

Another portion of the book that completely threw me was the narrative style.  While it opens in third-person and follows the present-day Fin on his journey back to his past, there is an inexplicable and unexplained shift into first person describing his childhood memories.  I am sure May was going for something artistic, but it reads more as someone who doesn’t know how to write or construct a novel.  I have never seen a book that presents emotional insight into a character in both third and first person, and it was so jarring that it distracted me for the rest of the novel.  These past insights were never explained – was it meant to be a journal?  Further thoughts from Fin?  It is never explained and never really makes sense.

In all, The Blackhouse had some great character insight that finally paid off in the final pages of the book, but failed to keep you involved until then.  The overall novel read like a first-time author and self-published on Kindle.  Except he’s not and it’s not.  Between the glaring stylistic missteps and the overdone story elements, The Blackhouse was a novel that fell far short of its potential.

Rating: 5/10

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