Friday, 1 February 2013

the black house

I read The Black House, by Peter May, last year. The first in a set of three detective novels set in Lewis. At the time when I got it out of the library I said 'Fearful of being infuriated by gross caricature of Lewis life in general and Lewis Christian life in particular but hoping for the best.'

It turned out that the writer had worked on Machair, the Gaelic soap opera which was filmed in Lewis for a number of years, so he was pretty familiar with the island - but also familiar with over-the-top soap opera cliches.

Soon after I started reading it I said, 'What I'll say at this point is that it's interesting trying to read it as if I don't know anything about Lewis, and trying to work out the picture it creates, especially for people who aren't picking up on (trivial?) mistakes of detail in eg geography and chronology/history, which I'm trying to let pass in a spirit of it being a fictional Lewis so not everything has to be exactly as it is/was. (Perhaps, say, people in Oxford have similar thoughts about Morse.) But for me he's going to have to go some to recover from the 'first day at school' section where the children speak, think and act closer to fifteen than five. I haven't warmed to his writing talent, but his plotting may win me over.'

Well, he didn't win me over. I didn't think it was well written, and I felt it was cliched in all the usual, negative grim ways, including about Lewis religion (this is I think the more common thread in contemporary fiction set in the Highlands, especially by people from the Highlands, than the over-romanticised or mystical angles of old, but maybe I'd still get those today if I was reading the right books). He also seemed to throw every conceivable plot point into the mix, which was annoying. Also annoying were the factual mistakes - as I say I tried to ignore those in a spirit of fairness, but conversely he should have got them right. (Someone's tweets on the book also made me think that people at home were having fun working out which locals the various characters were based on.) And I felt that especially on over-extended account of the guga-hunting trip he wanted too much to get his money's worth out of his research and put it all on the page, which was very tedious.

Having said all that, of course, I'll read the subsequent two in due course, because of the setting. There aren't that many Lewis-set books. (I still haven't read Kevin Macneil's, which I understand to be in the grim if humorous vein.)

Plenty London-set books, of course, and adds a dimension to reading those too, knowing the locations. But of course never enough to make you carry on with series you don't like (recent examples, first Bryant & May and Rivers of London, both also detective), because there are so many others (several fantasy ones still on my mental list, and some on my shelves).

Part of me thinks I should be the one to write the cheery Lewis novel; a bigger part of me rolls over and goes back to sleep. It's depressing to read books which have been published and think that I can write better than that, but much more depressing that I don't.

Prompted to write this blog post about it at last because Douglas sent me a copy as a gift. I see I haven't written anything on this blog for two months, not since writing about Rivers of London. This is partly because of the things mentioned in the 'clearing the decks' post in September, but also because I just got out of the habit of it and into the habit of looking in on Facebook and Twitter and getting stuck there. Reining that in.