The Chessman Completes Peter May's Lewis Trilogy

The Chessmen  (2013)
By Peter May
Quercus, 306 pages.

The Chessmen completes Peter May’s Isle of Lewis trilogy and it does so with panache. It opens with an epigraph from Omar Khayyam:

‘Tis all a Chequer-board of Nights and Days
Where Destiny with men for Pieces plays;
Hither and thither moves, and mates, and slays,
And one by one back in the closet lays.

This is both an overview of the book’s central mystery and wordplay that evokes Lewis’s most-famed export. The Lewis chessmen are 78 game pieces carved from walrus ivory in the 12th century, a time in which Lewis and surrounding islands were controlled by Norwegians–Vikings, if you will. They were unearthed in Lewis in 1831, but none actually reside there anymore; the bulk are in the British Museum in London and 11 others are on display in the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh. They are so expertly crafted that a recently discovered piece sold for nearly a million dollars.

Lewis may not have any of its namesake chessmen, but reproductions abound there and one of this novel’s characters, John Angus “Whistler” Mackaskill is busily carving giant replicas for an on-beach match for an upcoming island gala. Whistler also happens to be one of Fin Macleod’s oldest friends–one who has saved his life twice. The book opens with Fin and Whistler camping out. They awake to a shock. The entire loch (pronounced ‘lock’) near where they pitched tent is gone! How does an entire loch disappear? It’s called a bog burst, a subterranean geological phenomenon in which a fissure opens and either sends a lake’s contents underground or rushing to a lower body of water. That’s freaky enough, but not nearly as much as looking across the drained bed and seeing an intact private plane resting in the mud. Fin wishes to investigate, but Whistler knows immediately what it is. His nickname comes from having played penny whistle and flute in Amran, an up-and-coming band–think a Scots version of Steeleye Span. Mackaskill recognizes that the plane is that of the band’s lead guitarist/songwriter, Roddy Mackenzie, who has been missing for 17 years. Whistler quit the band before it became famous, but he has little stomach for gazing upon his old friend’s skeletal remains.

What happened to Roddy is just one of several threads in a novel with as many moves and countermoves as a chess match. There is the fact that Fin has just taken a new job: security chief for the Red River Estate, a fish and game preserve for rich toffs. Protecting the domain of the upper crust isn’t exactly Fin’s métier, but he needs the work and he has respect for Sir John Wooldrige, the owner of the estate. Sir John has always had the wisdom to look the other way when locals poach fish and stags. Alas, Sir John is in failing health and his snooty-nosed son, Jamie, is now in charge and orders that Fin to put a stop to local custom. That’s more than a challenge, as the worst offender on all of Lewis is his old buddy Whistler, who knows the terrain better than any ten men combined and is rather pissed at Fin for taking the job in the first place. Whistler’s view of things in best summarized by a rhetorical question raised by Scots poet Norman MacCaig: “Who possesses this landscape? The man who bought it or I who am possessed by it?”

Toss in Whistler’s busted marriage, his dead ex-wife Seonage, a resentful punked-out daughter Anna, the ex-communication trial of the Rev. Donald Murray, more on Fin and Marsaili, a missing fanciful chess piece (the “Beserker’), and several shocking murders and one has all the earmarks of a page-turner. We again have flashbacks to Fin’s youth–especially the days when he was a young blade on the make and served as an Amran roadie with “Strings,” “Skins,” “Rambo,” Roddy, and the beautiful Mairead with whom everyone was in love/lust. Some of the sections on music put me in mind of Andrew Greig’s The Electric Brae, though they are less poetic.

The Chessmen also takes us back the Fin’s boyhood–when he was tight with Donald and other lads who liked to hang out and smoke by the water until they were admonished by an old man who told them the story of the Iolaire, a World War One vessel that wrecked offshore and sent more than 200 returning Lewis vets to a watery grave. It is small details such as these that breathe as much life into May’s novels as his central mysteries.  I am sad that the trilogy has ended, though I gather May has a new novel set in Harris and Lewis. I shall be checking on that one soon–as well as May’s Enzo Files series.

Rob Weir

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