The Lewis Man, by Peter May

Article published on January 3, 2012.

The Lewis Man is the second in Peter May’s planned Lewis trilogy, a crime-based saga set on the Hebridean island of Lewis.  The opening chapter, The Blackhouse, was a triumph in terms of both place and character, and as such, hopes will be high for the follow up.

It opens, as far more typical crime books so often do, with the discovery of a body, that of a brutally murdered man.  Beneath the acidic peat of Lewis, the corpse has lain undisturbed, preserved perfectly for an unknown amount of time, possibly even millennia.  A pathologist sets about solving that particular mystery, and in doing so, throws up several more in its place, pulling former Detective Inspector Fin Macleod back to the island of his youth.

As with many of the best book titles, there is a smart duality in that of The Lewis Man.  Echoing cases such as that of The Tollund Man, the title refers to the dead body that sparks the investigation, smacking of the dry terminology of an anthropological textbook.  However, in a very real sense, Fin Macleod is also the Lewis Man; just as the darkness of the peat has stained the skin of the dead body, the Isle of Lewis has left its own immutable mark on Macleod.  He is a moody and often bleak character, much like that of the island itself, and despite his attempts to flee the island geographically and emotionally, he is unable to escape its gravitational pull.

In a world where the predictable so often equates to the profitable, the opening book of the Lewis trilogy was rejected by several UK publishers before finding favour in France.  Like many crime thrillers, the curtain of The Lewis Man raises to reveal a body, but after some well-researched pathological and procedural detail, May quickly deviates from the criminal pack.  What follows is less an investigation into one man’s death but an investigation into another man’s life, encompassing religious conflict, young love, bonds of blood, and a scandalous true-to-life tale of what amounts to 20th century child slavery in the UK.

Through the flashbacks of an elderly man with dementia, May tells a story which is deeply tragic, both in content and in style.  Said flashbacks include lengthy spells inside the walls of the Dean orphanage, a Dickensian place devoid of compassion.  The factual basis of the fictitious events of The Lewis Man only makes them more heart-rending.  There is a sense here that May has an injustice to correct, and his passion shines through in the elegiac tone of his writing.

Stylistically, May fuses a gloomy fatalism with a cast that refuses to stop yearning for something better.  The relationship between Macleod and Marsaili, for example, is complicated and tainted by decades of hurt, but the mutual attraction refuses to die.   The elements continue to batter the isle, and the fates continue to play cruel tricks on its inhabitants, but despite all this, there is still a tentative feeling of hope throughout the story, a lingering suspicion that life could take a turn for the brighter but for a single sweet slice of luck.

Crime fiction offers an ever-expanding range of literary flavours, from the heady poteen of Bruen to the pleasing Pimms of Dame Agatha.  Peter May is the genre’s fine wine; his writing is refined and complex, offering pleasure on many levels.  As a simple, sequential story of a murder investigation, The Lewis Man works perfectly well, pulling off an impressive number of twists given the miniscule cast.  Beyond that though, it succeeds as a character piece, as the study of an insular agrarian society, and even as a polemic.  The Blackhouse was an extremely good book; The Lewis Man is a superb book.  May already boasts an impressive array of literary awards; based on this effort, the Lewis trilogy should see that array grow more impressive still.

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