My rating: 5 stars
A gruesome murder takes place in Crobost, a small village in the far north of the Isle of Lewis. Due to its similarity with a murder which took place in Edinburgh, Detective Inspector Fionnlagh (Fin) Macleod, a native of the island, is sent to Lewis to investigate the murder. Returning to the island almost 20 years after he left, Fin tries to remain objective while he investigates the death of Angel Macritchie, a man who turns out to have been his childhood tormentor. However, he is swiftly drawn back into the life he left as a young adult, with the community ties and all the long-forgotten secrets that come with it. In solving the murder, Fin is forced to take stock of his life and come to terms with his own past.
The story is presented in alternating chapter, which recount the current murder investigation and Fin’s childhood, with the former chapters written in the third person and the latter in the first person. As the mystery unfolds, it becomes clearer to the reader that rather simply providing a background to the character of Fin Macleod, the childhood chapters instead provide a crucial piece of the puzzle of who murdered Macritchie. Throughout the pages, we are introduced to a cast of characters who have influenced Fin’s life and through them are forced to question what his life would be like had he stayed on Lewis rather than going to Glasgow University and then entering the police force.
I picked this book up for £2 from a charity shop and devoured it in two days – it has been a while since any book held my attention the way this did. This seems to be a book which polarises opinion (as evidenced from the reviews on Goodreads). Many of the people giving it low ratings seem to have been attracted by the cover. This has a blurb which reads:
A brutal killing takes place on the Isle of Lewis, Scotland: a land of harsh beauty and inhabitants of deep-rooted faith.
A MURDER. Detective Inspector Fin Macleod is sent from Edinburgh to investigate. For Lewis-born Macleod, the case represents a journey both home and into his past.
A SECRET. Something lurks within the close-knit island community. Something sinister.
A TRAP. As Fin investigates, old skeletons begin to surface, and soon he, the hunter, becomes the hunted.
Yes, this does describe the book. However, it does not accurately portray the book I read and I can see why people found themselves disliking it. I think that Quercus have done the book a great disservice – by setting it up as a horror novel, they have drawn in a readership which may not be entirely appropriate. Rather than a horror book, what May has created is a very detailed depiction of a murder investigation within a small island community and much of the narrative’s power lies in descriptions of boredom, claustrophobia and fear within the community. Additionally, the description of the Hebridean guga hunt provides both a vehicle for plot progression and an insight into an ancient Highland tradition. The only low point of the novel is the somewhat rushed denouement and the overly fanciful final 10 or so pages. In my opinion, these let down an otherwise brilliant novel.
Verdict: While I may be somewhat biased since I tend to prefer books which provide a lot of backstory to the events they describe, I think that many of the reviews on Goodreads are unnecessarily harsh. Despite a few issues outlined above, I really enjoyed The Blackhouse and it is thoroughly deserving of 5 stars. If you like a mystery novel with a little more thought put into it than the typical commercial trash, then this book is for you.