Peter May's second novel set on the Isle of Lewis and featuring as its central character Fin Macleod is a hugely welcome surprise. The first book in what we now learn will become a trilogy was "The Blackhouse", which was excellent, and as good a crime drama as you are likely to ever read. But its structure meant that we had assumed a follow up would never be possible. It is a great joy to be able to report that not only were we wrong, but "The Lewis Man" is, if anything, an even more compelling read than its predecessor. We now look forward with huge anticipation to the conclusion of the trilogy.
The Lewis Man of the title refers to a body buried in a peat bog near the north west coast of the Isle of Lewis which is unearthed by local villagers cutting peat for their winter fuel. There is a well established tradition of remarkably preserved "bog bodies" turning up in various parts of Europe after centuries or millennia preserved in peat, and the assumption is that this is more a matter for the archaeologists than the police. Until the autopsy reveals a tattoo on the body referring to Elvis. Suddenly what seemed an ancient ritual execution becomes an extremely violent murder committed only five decades earlier.
As in "The Blackhouse" the story unfolds in two parallel strands. Fin Macleod in the here and now has left the police and returned to his roots on the Isle of Lewis: and becomes drawn into the investigation when DNA shows the body is related to the father of his childhood sweetheart, Tormod Macdonald, now deep in the grip of dementia. The second strand is Tormod's own story, emerging from a mind which has little capacity for short term memory and in which the present is all too easily confused with the past. It soon becomes clear that Tormod is a man who has kept deep secrets from his family for decades, but the problem for Fin is finding a way of getting to the truth when Tormod is no longer capable of telling it himself.
Peter May does a superb job in drawing these two converging strands to a gripping conclusion. Some elements of what eventually emerges are very subtly signposted at different points through the book, while others come as a genuine surprise. It is particularly striking to look back and realise just how complex the task of using these different strands to manage the reader's knowledge of the story must have been: "The Lewis Man" is an outstanding example of the storyteller's art.