Today I’m turning the virtual mic over to Lauren, because I thought she’d do a better job of telling you about THE LEWIS MAN than I ever could. I was right! You can find Lauren on Twitter here.

The Lewis ManI had never been to the Outer Hebrides islands of Scotland until I read The Blackhouse, the Barry  Award-winning first entry in Peter May’s Lewis Trilogy.  But May’s spare yet electric prose brings the harsh terrain and weather of the islands to life as surely as the living characters.  Now, the islands feel like a new friend, albeit a challenging one.

The Lewis Man, the second in the trilogy, continues the story of now former Detective Inspector Fin Macleod, who returns once again to the Isle of Lewis, the island of his birth.  This trip may be more permanent, as Fin sets out both to restore his childhood home, now derelict, and address relationships, old and new, brought to the forefront in The Blackhouse.  The island is also home to unresolved relationships from his past, one of which leads to his participation in a murder investigation.

The prologue begins:

On this storm-lashed island three hours off the north-west coast of Scotland, what little soil exists gives the people their food and their heat.  It also takes their dead.  And very occasionally, as today, gives one up.

If that short passage alone doesn’t hook you, come closer and let me check your temperature.

The soil mentioned in the passage refers to the centuries-old history of “peat-cutting,” harvesting natural turf of decayed vegetation to use as fuel for heating and cooking.  The cutting is a social event, and it is during such festivities that a body is discovered in the opening pages.

The corpse is that of a young man in his late teens who died violently. Although the preserving effects of the moor mean the body could be hundreds of years old or more, the Elvis Presley tattoo on the right forearm indicates otherwise, and the search begins for the victim’s identity and a killer who may still be alive and on the island.

DNA identifies the body as a sibling match to Tormod Macdonald, elderly father of Marsaili, Fin’s childhood sweetheart.  The island cops begin to suspect Tormod, who is suffering from dementia and unable to effectively help himself or Fin, sucked into the investigation by his former occupation and lingering feelings for Marsaili.  Deepening the mystery is Tormod’s lifelong assertion that he was an only child, orphaned at an early age.

Told in chapters alternating between Tormod’s first-person thoughts and memories and third-person narration of the investigation, the story never feels crowded despite the many relationships, secrets, and shameful island histories explored. It is fast paced and beautifully written, the language a joy despite the sometimes dark and grim setting and subject matter.

The characters, even those of a secondary nature, are complex and well-crafted, a real strength of the author’s.  They each struggle with internal and interpersonal conflicts, demons, and opportunities lost.  But even with underlying currents of abuse, betrayal, and abandonment, there is also a sense that hope can survive even in the most rugged landscape.  Of particular note are the compassion and patience marking Fin’s relationship with Tormod, as Fin mines Tormod’s broken memory for the keys to unlock the identity of the body and how it came to its end in the moor.

As a side note, the relationships between the recurring characters are given a broad brush background in The Lewis Man.  It’s not necessary to read The Blackhouse first, but I highly recommend it.  The Lewis Man comes out in the U.S. today; do yourself a favor and buy both.

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