When your boss calls you in and says that you should go up to your hometown on a remote island in the Hebrides of Scotland and lend a hand with an investigation, you gotta know you’re in for trouble. Fin McLeod, an Edinburgh police detective whose young son Robbie has recently died in a tragic accident, doesn’t even want to come back to work yet, much less return to his childhood home, a place he hasn’t visited in 20 years. But the boss insists, so Fin goes home, packs a bag, ends his disintegrating marriage, and heads north.
The ritualistic murder he’s dispatched to help out with is very similar, but not identical, to one that had occurred in Edinburgh, so Fin’s job is to try to determine if the two are linked and to help out the investigators on the ground with his local knowledge. The man in charge of the investigation, of course, would be just as pleased if Fin would be swallowed up by the earth. Fin himself would love to disappear from the island. The locals aren’t thrilled to see him back and hint at a dark secret involving Fin that nobody wants unearthed. And, oh by the way, the murder victim is a bully who made Fin’s young life a misery. Fin perseveres in his job, however, and begins to look for links between the murders.
Very quickly, the book’s focus changes from the murder investigation to the secrets the island community harbors. May alternates between chapters in which Fin relives his childhood and youth in the first person, and third-person chapters telling the story of Fin’s present-day visit to the island. Fin is a Jonah-like character: everyone whose life he’s touched has suffered terrible tragedy and loss. As the book progresses, past and present move, not in parallel, but at angles toward each other until they finally intersect in a confrontation that shatters the lives of everyone involved.
Thematically, the book deals with the silent agreements we must come to in order to live with ourselves, our neighbors, and the shameful elements of our shared pasts in a small community. When the silence is broken, the disruption to the community is total.
The most fascinating element of the book is the insight into what amounts, even in this modern day, to a closed community that still observes customs hundreds of years old. Every year, for instance, men from the village travel through punishing seas to a dangerous, rocky island where for two weeks they hunt and process birds to bring back and share with their neighbors. The past haunts the island at every turn, even physically. The ruins of blackhouses, the traditional island homes inhabited up to the time of Fin’s grandparents, are everywhere.
When the murder is finally solved, almost as an afterthought, it’s as shocking as any of the shocking things we’ve already learned about the blighted community’s past. These are, after all, northern latitudes. The Scandinavians have nothing on the Scots when it comes to dark and darker atmosphere.
The book has some bothersome elements. Fin leaves Robbie in the dust a bit too quickly and easily for my comfort, going from morbid focus on the boy’s death early in the book to pretty much not thinking about him at all once he reaches Lewis. And the unremitting string of bad things that happened to Fin and everyone he came in contact with began to wear after a while. But I was fascinated by what I was learning about that area of Scotland and its cultural history, and intrigued enough to keep wondering where May was going with the story. The Blackhouse is a thriller, of sorts, and the mystery at the center of it is not the murder, but the secrets Fin’s return lays bare.