Thursday, August 28, 2014

Peter May's North American debut

I will go right ahead and say from the outset that I do not generally read detective novels, or crime novels, or mystery novels, or Section 940 (as we call them in the bookstore). I don't dislike them, they just don't often make it to the top of my list. But a dear friend, and someone whose taste I trust in books, talked to me last month and said "I just finished the best book I've read in two years. You have to read it. The writer's name is Peter May and the book is The Blackhouse." I nodded politely because I knew I had no plans to read the book (there was just too much on my pile right then - galleys of the new Ian McEwan novel and Maureen Corrigan's book about Gatsby, and Josh's staff pick for this month, The Most Dangerous Book, and all sorts of other stuff). And that was before I even knew that it was a detective/mystery novel, which made it even less likely that I'd read it. But then I mentioned it to my wife, Dina, and she said "Peter May - he's coming to the bookstore in September, I think." Well, sure enough, he was. And then the stars aligned further because in the back of the store I found galley copies not just of The Blackhouse, which came out in the US a couple of years ago, but of The Lewis Man, the new book for which Mr. May is coming to visit us next week. Score. (These two books are the first two of a trilogy - the third, The Chess Men, is out in Britain but not yet here.) Then I started reading about him and the books and how people have gone nutso over them in the UK and Europe (France especially), and I found out that his appearance at Porter Square will be his first in the US for this book (I believe he was in the states briefly in 2013 when he won a number of awards for The Blackhouse). The signs all added up to the fact that it looked like I was going to be reading these books.

So I read The Blackhouse. Wow. This is a phenomenal piece of writing. The story takes place on the Isle of Lewis, in the Outer Hebrides in Scotland (May is from Glasgow). Fin MacLeod is an Edinburgh detective, originally from Lewis, who is called back to the town he grew up in, and which he had left years ago, to investigate a murder that appears to have parallels to a case he had handled in Edinburgh. The novel alternates chapters between the third person narrative of the present - Fin's investigation - and a first person narrative of the child Fin growing up with many of the characters who are still around and are now the primary figures in the investigation. May's descriptions of place are magnificent and evocative - Lewis seems indeed to be God's country, forsaken and bleak and harsh, and he writes as well about weather as he does about landscape. His characters, and his dialect, are brilliant.

So that's enough about Blackhouse - just go read it. (We have plenty of copies at the store.) Now I'm halfway through Lewis Man and basically all the things I said in the last paragraph about Blackhouse are true here as well - Fin is again the central character, investigating a murder in Lewis, alternating voices between a first and a third person narrator. And also, as before, the past not only informs Fin's memory and psyche, but becomes inextricably woven into the events of the present, and is part of the mystery (and, I can predict, its solution). Many characters return along with Fin, and the physical setting is again a crucial and mesmerizing part of the story. But don't worry, this is not just a rewrite of the first book.  Far from it - and in fact so far I like it even better.  This is a you-need-to-go-to-sleep-but-you-can't-put-it-down-and-you-stay-up-til-3-in-the-morning book. You are naturally curious about solving the mystery, but that is only a fraction of the delight of the experience of reading the novel. I'm hooked, and am waiting for Chess Men to finish the trilogy.

I predict you will hear a lot about Peter May in years to come. And you will be able to say that you saw him his first time here, when he landed in America with his new book. Even if you've only just started The Blackhouse, and even if you haven't (yet), please come and meet Mr. May on Tuesday the 3rd. You'll thank me.

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