Joyce once described Ireland as a priest-ridden country. God knows what he would have made of the Hebrides as presented in Peter May's accomplished trilogy, of which The Chessmen is the concluding volume. The influence of a hidebound church is all-pervasive and all-stultifying. But this is only part of the rich texture with which May has invested these books, elevating them above most contemporary crime fiction.
Following The Blackhouse and The Lewis Man, The Chessmen draws together the fascinating elements of the earlier books. Fin MacLeod is finally attaining some kind of equilibrium in his troubled life, resettled in his childhood home of the Isle of Lewis – even though the dark Hebrides here seem to cry out for a soundtrack by Bernard Herrmann rather than Felix Mendelssohn.
The ex-detective inspector has been commissioned by a wealthy landowner to take charge of the security on his estate. It seems a straightforward job, but then Fin encounters poacher Whistler Macaskill, whom he has known since they were at school. Memories of his teenage years are rekindled, but then the duo are present at a bizarre natural phenomenon, a "bog burst" in which all the water from one of the Lewis lochs is evacuated.
This freak occurrence reveals a light aircraft. Inside it is the body of a musician friend, Roddy McKenzie, whose flight ended in disaster nearly two decades before. As Fin begins to realise that Whistler knows more than he is telling, he encounters the tendency of secrets in the past to erupt into the present – with dangerous results.
Although all three books may be read as standalones, their cumulative effect is more powerful. This is the sort of novel that will have the reader relishing every the tendency of description and characterisation. The history and folklore of the Hebridean islands are the integuments of the book, and The Chessmen offers an almost visceral experience: we, too, are walking these windy cliffs and peat bogs with Fin. Readers will find it hard to say goodbye to him, but we have to admire May for sticking to his vision of a perfectly-formed trilogy.
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