Written by Peter May — He’s got fans across the globe and has won a slew of awards. His book, The Blackhouse, was even a Richard & Judy Book Club pick, but I’m ashamed to say that that I haven’t read any of Peter May’s previous books. I’m really glad to have finally caught up with him though! The Chessmen is the final instalment of the best-selling Lewis trilogy, which opened with the aforementioned The Blackhouse and continued with The Lewis Man. And that’s something that could have put me off, because there’s nothing worse than coming late to the party and feeling like an outsider. I needn’t have worried though, because The Chessmen works just as well as a standalone novel. Yes, there’s plenty of back story for the newcomer to assimilate, but it is so neatly woven through the narrative that I never felt at a disadvantage.
The story opens as former policeman Fin Macleod is returning to the Hebrides to take up a new job as head of security on a privately owned estate, which is on the Isle of Lewis, the most northern island on the Outer Hebrides archipelago. Poachers are stealing all the best game, and Fin is handed the job of putting a stop to their thievery. Among the suspects in Whistler Macaskill, a skilled poacher, and also one of Fin’s oldest friends. But their friendship is sorely tested by a shock discovery made after the pair are stranded in the mountains of south west Lewis following a violent storm. Overnight, one of the lochs has drained away – and at the now dry bottom of it sits a light aircraft, with its dead pilot still in situ. As the police investigate the crash, long-buried rivalries, secrets and wrong-doings begin to resurface at an alarming rate – and Fin is at the centre of it all. He may not be a policeman any longer, but he can’t resist getting involved in the case.
The Chessmen of the title are the Lewis Chessmen, a group of 12th century chess pieces found on the island in 1831, which are now split between the British Museum in London and the Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh. Whistler is carving a replica set for an island celebration, but the title is apt in other ways too. While some characters appear mere pawns in a greater game, others have far more chance of altering the outcome. This is a story of love, friendship, loyalty and betrayal – and it had me hooked from the first chapter.
May shifts the action back and forth like a seasoned time traveler, using flashbacks to great effect. As the story unfolds in both past and present, the more you read, the more you will be absorbed into the life and landscape of the Hebrides. I’ve never before come across a writer with such a talent for creating an all-consuming sense of place. His descriptions of Lewis are almost cinematic in their precision and atmosphere. There are times when you’ll feel as if you are striding right there alongside Fin, Whistler and the rest of the finely crafted cast of characters. It is rare that I want to go back and read a book again, but The Chessmen is such an excellent read that I’m definitely setting it aside for a revisit. And I’ll be adding Peter May’s name to my ever-growing ‘must read’ authors list.
The Chessmen has just come out in paperback.
CFL Rating: 5 Stars