Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Peter May’s “The Chessmen”

Finlay Macleod, known as Fin, is a former detective on the Edinburgh police force. He’s left the force and returned to where he was born and raised – the Isle of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides, off the northwestern coast of Scotland. It’s a place of memories of youth, the aunt who raised him after his parents died, and the children he grew up with. It is with one of those children, now a bear of a man named John Macaskill whom Fin calls Whistler, that Fin experiences what feels like an earthquake but is known as a “bog burst” that drains a nearby loch, or lake.

And there, at the bottom of the lake, lies a small airplane. Find and Whistler know whose plane it is – the leader of a band they were part of 17 years before. The plane and its pilot had supposedly disappeared over the nearby Atlantic many years before. But there it is, in the bottom of the drained loch. And in it is a body of man who was clearly murdered, the side of his head bashed in.

This is the heart of the story of The Chessmen by British (I should probably say Scottish) writer Peter May. It’s a mystery with deep roots in the past. It is a mystery in a place where the past is always present and where the present is always old. It is a savagely beautiful place fought over by Vikings, tribesmen, Scots, and English, a place where enemies and friends settle their differences with their fists. It is a place of harsh Presbyterianism and unbridled passions.

Isle of Lewis
Fin knows that someone had to land the plane on the loch and then sink it. Someone swam away from a murder. He sees that Whistler knows more about the plane than he’s saying; Whistler, in fact, walks away and doesn’t look back. What happened with that murder is still affecting lives all those years later.

May takes us through the rise of the Gaelic band that the main characters were part of. Fin himself was a roadie for the band. The passions that played out among the band members helped to lead to the murder.

Peter May
The Chessmen is a standalone novel, but it is actually the third in May’s Lewis Trilogy. The first was The Black House and the second was The Lewis Man. May is a screenwriter, novelist, and crime writer who has 20 writing awards. Interesting enough, The Black House originally could not find a publisher in Britain, and was first published in France, where it commanded so much attention (and several awards) that it became a bestseller in Europe – before being published in the U.K. May has published some 23 crime and general novels and a travel book about the Hebrides, and produced five television screenplays and one for a forthcoming movie.

May’s novels are known for their solid research (see the video below for the topography researched for The Chessmen). We learn a considerable amount of the Isle of Lewis’s history, including a ship disaster in 1919. It is also the place where the famed Lewis Chessmen were discovered in 1831, and the chessmen play a small but ultimately pivotal role in the unfolding of the story.

The Chessmen is a fine mystery and a good novel, filled with how the past not only shaped the present but never really leaves.

Top photograph: Loch Moraig on the Isle of Lewis, via Wikimedia Commons. Used with permission.

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