Journeys course through and about Peter May’s The Chessmen the way the Atlantic Ocean churns about the Isle of Lewis, the outermost island among Scotland’s Outer Hebrides, where this thriller takes place. The bookconcludes a trilogy that begins when ex-Edinburgh detective Fin Macleod travels to the isle, his boyhood home, to solve a murder. To write the three books, author Peter May, a native of Glasgow who now lives in France, spent the better part of five years on Lewis absorbing its people and its terrain. And falling under the dark spells of The Chessmen—and the other two works in the trilogy, The Blackhouse and The Lewis Man—an intrepid reader may well brave the turbulent Atlantic seas to visit this wild place.
“I don’t believe you have really seen Scotland until you have stood on the deck of a heaving ferry and watched those cliffs rise up from the sea and emerge from the mist,” May says.
May first visited Lewis in 1990 when Scottish Television asked him to write a serial drama to be filmed entirely in Gaelic. He headed to Lewis to create Machair (a Gaelic term for low-lying, coastal grazing land composed of crushed sea shells and sand).
“The Isle of Lewis was the last bastion of Gaelic-speaking culture in Scotland,” May says, “and so was the obvious setting for the show.”
The TV series wrapped, May realized he had found the perfect place for what would become a trilogy of thrillers. He had already launched two other thriller series, one set in France, the other in China. This third series would play out on Lewis, which he now knew well.
“I got to know every blade of grass and grain of sand on the island, became steeped in its culture and language and made many friends,” he says.
Indeed, May’s keen sense of the island suffuses his descriptions of its star k, dramatic terrain, a major aspect of his books’ appeal. (“The [book’s] atmosphere is altogether magical,” a Kirkus reviewer wrote). Consider, for example, this poetic image of an island vista from The Chessmen:
<block>The tide was in, emerald water a foot deep over acres of golden sand, splinters of distant sunlight stabbing through breaks in the cloud, firing light in fast-moving flashes across the far machair.</block>
In The Chessmen, a landowner hires Macleod to guard his estate but soon the ex-detective investigates a murder that links to the days when, as a young man, he traveled with a rock group and fell in love with one of its members, who now returns. Like the plots in The Lewis Man and The Blackhouse, this one becomes a dark and violent tale characteristic of its setting.
“The town of Stornoway on the Isle of Lewis is a hard-drinking, hard-living place where fishermen who’ve been at sea all week let off steam on a Saturday night,” May says. “When I first went there, drink-fuelled violence in some pubs was the norm.”
May’s take on Lewis in the books is sharp-eyed and uncompromising. His concern that islanders might object to his depictions proved unfounded.
“I write bluntly—sometimes brutally—about them, without the gloss and romanticism that colors the tourist brochures. But I think the islanders really appreciated that, and recognized the truth of my depiction of the place,” he says. “In fact, many were incredulous that I wasn’t actually an islander myself. So I am delighted to say that the books have been terrifically well-received on the islands where they have been huge bestsellers.”
Beyond Lewis, May’s trilogy has traveled well. In America, The Blackhouse won the Barry Award in 2013 for best mystery novel at Bouchercon, the prestigious annual gathering in America of major crime writers. In the New York Times, mystery reviewer Marilyn Stasio wrote, “Peter May is an author I’d follow to the ends of the earth.”
To readers who want to follow May’s stories to the Isle of Lewis, May promises they will encounter a corner of Scotland unlike any other.
“The wind never stops,” he says, “arriving across 3,000 miles of Atlantic ocean with a force that flattens everything. There are no trees. The islands are utterly exposed, and the sea that batters the Lewisian gneiss of the western cliffs has shaped not only the coastline but the character of the people who live along it.”
Gerald Bartell covers books for the Washington Post, the San Francisco Chronicleand Kirkus.