The Lewis Man a Decent Sequel (despite flaws)

The Lewis Man (2014)
By Peter May
Quercus Books, 2012, 320 pages.
★★★ ½

This sequel to The Blackhouse finds Fin Macleod living on Lewis–sans his wife and his job with the police force. Call it Fin’s midlife crisis. But at least he’s back in a place where he feels comfortable, which he never experienced while living in Edinburgh.

Fin, though, is just not the sort of man who is ever entirely at peace. Nor is he the greatest planner in the world. He’s been living in a tent and puttering around trying to repair his late aunt’s croft house; if you asked him if he and his old girlfriend Marsaili were an item, he really couldn’t tell you for certain. He has certainly bonded with her son Fionnlaigh (Fee-on’-lak), who could use some adult male advice, as he has impregnated his girlfriend Donna. She happens to be the daughter of Fin’s old mate Donald Murray, but the two of them are not exactly on good terms as Donald has gone from former hellraiser to an intolerant hell-fire-and-brimstone minister. If you’ve read the first book, you know that Fin and religion are not bedfellows. Fin sees Donald as a sanctimonious hypocrite, and Donald views Fin as an unrepentant sinner.

Little do Donald and Fin realize that a Lewis mystery is about to pull everyone into closer orbit. DS George Gunn is called when peat bank diggers unearth a mummified male body. This isn’t unheard of in Scotland and Ireland. Perhaps some of you have been to Dublin and have seen the leathery but well-reserved head and torso of Old Croghan Man in the National Museum, a find over 2,000 years old. Peat is an excellent preservative; the acids in peat are similar to vinegar and essentially “pickle” bodies. DS Gunn’s first thought is to call in the archaeologists. That plan is waylaid when the autopsy reveals a sinister detail: the body has an Elvis tattoo and he was murdered.

Fin wheedles his way into the case in an unofficial capacity when DNA  looks as if the body has some connection to Tormod Macdonald, Marsaili’s father. Alas, Tormod is of no help as he is suffering from advanced dementia. One of the book’s central themes is that of what children actually know of their parents’ youth. Marsaili, for instance, knew little of her father’s boyhood, or that he–a Protestant–spent in a Catholic orphanage. Fin tries to piece together Tormod’s past, a journey that will send him island-hopping and eventually back to Edinburgh’s Dean Village, a now-bucolic 19th century mill village within the city that hugs the Water of Leith (a small river), where Tormod’s orphanage once stood.

May tells interweaving tales that touch upon schoolboys, a dare, and a tragedy. It will also lead him into contact with the Kellys, an infamous Edinburgh organized crime family. As he freelances his way through a 50-year-old murder mystery, he inadvertently places Tormod, Fionnlaigh, Marsaili, an actress, and himself in danger. I rather doubt that you will see the resolution coming.

Once again May paints evocative pictures of Scotland’s past and its wild places. Lewis and Harris are part of an island archipelago that includes Uist and Eriskay, both of which factor into the novel. The Outer Hebrides (Hebb’-ri-dees)–as they are collectively known–feature isolated beaches, windswept hills, exposed bedrock, treeless moors, peat banks, low-lying machair (pasture and farm land), marsh, lochs, and abundant bird life. What it lacks is people–it’s 50 islands of which just 15 are inhabited and contain just 26,000 individuals. May’s Lewis is a place in which humans struggle against nature. Many fishermen, for instance, cannot swim—there’s no point as the water is too frigid to survive for long. It’s also one in which social change comes inexorably, but slowly. For every person who wishes to march into the future, there is one (or more) who’d rather flip the calendar backward.

May is at his best when he shows these tensions and places individuals within them. I enjoyed Lewis Man, though it lacks the convincing drama of The Blackhouse. Objectively speaking, one could fault May for building his dénouement around too many potboiler contrivances. Still, the man sure can turn beautiful phrases and he has populated his Lewis trilogy with memorable characters whom we come to know and care about.

Rob Weir

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