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Love and Death by Way of the Outer Hebrides
April 6, 2017 -- In the market for tightly knit, engrossing, atmospheric thrillers? Worried you won't have enough to do if they won't let you bring your tablet or laptop on board?
Allow me to introduce Peter May, the highly regarded Scottish writer, and The Lewis Trilogy, one of his many triumphs. The trilogy introduces Detective Sergeant Finlay (Fin) MacLeod of the Edinburgh police department, who we meet on the job in the first book and in his early retirement in books two and three.
Perversely enough, and don't ask me why, I first read The Lewis Man, the middle book in the series. Then I read the final book, The Chessmen. (I'll tell you about the opening novel, The Blackhouse, at a later time.) Don't be concerned about reading out of order. Each book has a standalone central plot with a satisfying payoff.
The setting of The Lewis Trilogy is the Isle of Lewis, a remote island in Scotland's northernmost Outer Hebrides. It is an environment that can, by turn, be incredibly appealing and a repository for nature's violence. This perhaps explains May's preoccupation with the influence of weather and the terrain--the landscape, cloud formations and the surrounding sea--on his absorbing tales. His dramatic and evocative descriptions often foreshadow or reflect what is happening among the players.
In The Lewis Man, a well-preserved body is discovered in a peat bog. Although it doesn't date back as far as the local police first speculate, its "chronology" is determined by the fact that the victim sports an Elvis Presley tattoo of The Heartbreak Hotel. At this point, the recently retired MacLeod returns to the land where he was born and raised to find himself unexpectedly involved in the murder investigation--and possibly tempted to reignite an old flame. But it's never easy for the past to catch up to the present.
Without getting into the complexities of the central story and various subplots, the body found in the bog is eventually determined to be related to an elderly local, Tormond MacDonald. He happens to be the father of Fin's lost love, Marsaili, and suffers from an advanced case of dementia. The elder MacDonald's inward musings, written with tenderness and great sensitivity, are lyrical and quite rational. It is in these passages that the author transcends the literary confines of the traditional mystery novel.
It takes us quite a while to discover the identity of the peat-bog body. In the meantime, we learn that Fin is the father of Marsaili's son, Fionnlagh, who recently fathered a child by a local lass who is the daughter of Donald Murray, a Lewis Island minister and a boyhood friend of Fin. In pursuit of the dead man's identity, Fin and Marsaili journey to Edinburgh to visit what was once an orphanage. They find more than they bargained for as the plot skips along from one startling development to another and often from one island to another. There is a sudden and unexpected denouement, one I believe may challenge credulity. But believe me, it's worth undertaking this often-hypnotic journey.
In The Chessmen, MacLeod has become head of security for an island estate and is charged with tracking down poachers. In the process, he discovers a gruesome cold-case murder. In a sense, he's recruited to help solve the murder, although his local police contact never seems very receptive to any crime-solving help that Macleod offers.
Along the way, we're introduced to several new characters. There's the temperamental and combative, but loyal, John Angus (AKA Whistler) Macaskill. A close friend of Fin's early years, he has been accused of poaching on the land MacLeod has been hired to protect. We also meet Whistler's angry, alienated teenage daughter, Anna, whose custody embroils Whistler in a dangerous tug-of-war with another islander.
When a bog breaks and drains a loch (lake) of all the water (a rare, but true natural phenomenon), Fin and Whistler discover a mud-encrusted single-engine plane. Inside are the remains of the pilot, believed to be Roddy Mackenzie, a pivotal figure from their youth who disappeared 17 years ago. Mackenzie was the leader and founder of Amran, a Celtic rock 'n roll band on the rise in Scotland. To complicate matters further, Fin worked as a roadie for Amran.
The discovery of the body reunites Fin with his island friends, including the band's lead singer, Mairead Morrison. Other band members were enamored of Mairead and Fin had an affair with her. The overlapping relationships lend a genuine poignancy to some of the memories that arise as a result of the discovery of Mackenzie's body.
As if one murder mystery was not enough, there are others, even closer to home and heart. Resolution involves several unexpected turns and a gripping courtroom confrontation that will hold your interest even as you wonder: "How come I didn't figure this out?"
In case you were wondering, the title refers to Whistler's hand-carved, oversized wooden chess pieces. Some are more than three feet tall and they are used in an annual celebration and naturally play a role in one of the crimes.
It's a worth a trip to the Isle of Lewis with Fin MacLeod and friends. You may find yourself so caught up with the lives and loves of the islanders that you'll be among those who wish May would continue this series.
The novels in The Lewis Trilogy are available from Amazon.com in hardcover, paperback and Kindle editions.
This column is Copyright © 2017 by Martin B. Deutsch. JoeSentMe.com is Copyright © 2017 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved. All of the opinions and material in this column are the sole property and responsibility of Martin B. Deutsch. This material may not be reproduced in any form without his express written permission.