Jim Kelly lives in Ely, Cambridgeshire, with his partner, the writer Midge Gillies, and their daughter. He is the author of the series starring journalist Philip Dryden. The Dryden series won the 2006 CWA Dagger in the Library award for a body of work giving ‘the greatest enjoyment to readers’
“The dark winter skies over Stornaway amplified the loneliness of the disused military store where the body of the first murder victim on the Western Isles for 43 years was found.” Peter May’s compelling The Lewis Man doesn’t start like this. This is an extract from a recent copy of the Guardian – a real murder, a real victim, and an extraordinary community shocked by an intrusion of crime.
But May got there first, in fiction, and his story soars above the mundane realities of murder to give us – well – a family saga really, a drama about uncovering family links and secrets: it’s Who Do You Think You Are on steriods. And a tale of one of Scotland’s darkest secrets. Above all this is story-telling at its primordial best. It leaves real life in its slip-stream, as all good fiction should.
May’s begins with the uncovering of a body in a peat bog. An academic flies in to help the local police tackle the death because it looks like another ancient man locked in the earth for a 1,000 years, or maybe more. There’s only one problem – that Elvis tattoo on his arm. The case falls to ex-Glasgow copper Fin Macleod. One of the many admirable facets of this tale is the way May makes life on Lewis extraordinary, but avoids even a hint of tartan tourist settings. The book is gritty in a fine way - full of the details of a hard life on the edge of the world as it is lived right now.
While Fin drives the story forward the central character is Tormod Macdonald – ageing, confused, blighted by Alzheimer’s. Tests show that the man in the bog was related to Tormod. But what can Tormod remember ? He doesn’t say much that makes sense – just a bit. But most of all he can – in a wonderful way – fall into making sense to himself. So we spend a lot of time with Tormod, inside his head, excavating his own memories. The story of his life in a brutal Galsgow home for children – and the terrifying night-time ordeal which prompts his banishment to the isles – is spell-binding. The fact that his exile mirrors the real lives of many children caught up in one of Scotland’s bleakest scandals gives the tale a bitter heart.
May is very clever here, writing from inside Tormod’s head, because he limits his diction and pallete, so that he tells a brilliant story but with the sparest of language, so that the old man’s inner voice sounds genuine. He’s also managed to inveigle a more conventional crime novel into the package as well – and that provides us with a satisfying climax spiked with genuine fear, as violence – Glasgow-style – tracks Fin and Tormod down to their clifftop hamlet. The book’s a delight: bringing people and place alive in equal measure.
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