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The Lewis Man - Peter May

Scotland is a major theme in New Standpoints 57. We couldn’t resist this crime trilogy set in the furthest reaches of Scotland, but with a French connection!

The Black House, (Quercus 2011), The Lewis Man, (2012), The Chessmen (2013)

There’s a question that thriller-readers often ask themselves: How can you write crime fiction in the era of DNA? Aren’t DNA findings at odds with the step-by-step development of an investigation and the solving of a mystery?

The Lewis Trilogy proves that it’s still possible and can even become part of the complexification of a murder mystery. The books are set in the Outer Hebrides, the windlashed Gaelic-speaking islands off the north-west coast of Scotland, where, in many ways, nothing has changed since Fin Macleod, the (anti)-hero, spent his childhood there.

Macleod is an outsider. At the start of the trilogy, as a policeman, he is on the fringes of an investigation. Later, he leaves the force, and finds himself involved in another investigation.

A disillusioned man, grieving for a lost child, he carries the burden of past errors and inconsiderate carelessness, but also that of unacknowledged sufferings dating back to his childhood and youth…

However, he will find new opportunities to make up for loss and despair.
Peter May built all three stories along a dual narrative, intermingling past and present. All three are also investigations into the island’s past, and those of the investigator as well as into the murderers’.

The first two stories deal with two typical features of life on Lewis in the first three-quarters of the 20th century. Firstly, guga harvests, ‘guga’ being the Gaelic word for, « ‘a young gannet’, a bird that the men of Crobost harvested during a two-week trip every August to a rock fifty miles north-north-east of the tip of Lewis. » (The Black House). And homers: until the mid-twentieth century, the Catholic Church shipped its orphans out to Uist (the Catholic island south of the fiercely Protestant Lewis) and handed them over to families; the orphans were fed and sent to school, and they helped on the farms. « Once you got sent out here all ties with the past were cut. You were forbidden contact with parents or family. Some of them got terribly abused. Beaten or worse. Most were just treated like slave labour. A few were luckier… » (The Lewis Man).

Peter May has a sense of dramatic landscapes and atmospheres: « three hundred feet of storm-lashed cliffs rising out of the northern ocean. » Perfect for those who love reading and dreaming about boat-rides on rough seas, when your face is lashed by brine, foam and wind. May also depicts with a painter’s eye the ever-changing sky as storm and darkness and light abruptly alternate. But Lewis also has a far less sensational side. Life in Stornaway, on a Sunday, even on a Saturday evening, is bleak for young people hanging around between the bus stop and the fish-and-chip shop, with the stern, self-righteous Free Church of Scotland, looming ominously in the background.

The Lewis Trilogy reads like an ethnographic thriller: life on the islands today, the exodus of the young, the ponderous presence of the Church, seamen’s life, their skills at navigating a boat in the storm, salmon–poachers stealing the islanders’ main source of prosperity, for the benefit of global business…
Despite his depiction of distant northern mist and light, its author has chosen to live in the south of France. In fact, British publishers all turned down the manuscript of The Black House though Peter May was an experienced BBC scriptwriter.

So May had his book translated into French, and L’Ile des chasseurs d’oiseaux became a bestseller, and won the Prix des lecteurs at the 2010 Ancres noires festival, in Le Havre. The book was then published in the U.K and was greeted with the success it deserves, as have been the two other books of the trilogy.