Hazel McHaffie

The Blackhouse

Viral overload

A surprising number of people have asked me when I’m going to write a book about a pandemic – however, word on the writerly circuit is that this would be ill-advised… for a long time. And it’s certainly not on my radar. But OK, the current pandemic has been uppermost in our thoughts for months, so I thought I’d look at a couple of modern novels written way before this present real-life Covid-19 crisis reared its ugly head, and see what a lively imagination can come up with.

Peter May‘s 2003 novel, The Runner, features endogenous retroviruses. What viruses, do I hear you cry?  Viral remnants found in every cell, an integral part of the human genome, normally dormant, but occasionally activated by external viruses and capable of causing catastrophic damage and the emergence of very dangerous diseases … sounding familiar?! In this case, though, it’s the musculature of the heart in young, fit, elite athletes, causing thickening of the walls of arteries, and heart attacks, which the pathologists are finding.

Section Chief Li Yan smells trouble when he sees a succession of such deaths among top athletes in China. Initially they appear to have been involved in accidents or suicide, but something sinister lies beneath the facade. They all reveal strange pathologies at autopsy, and all except one have completely shaven heads. Li has been protecting his pregnant American fiancée, Margaret Campbell, for her own sake and the well-being of their unborn child, but such is his disquiet, that only she will do for post mortem examinations on these young sportsmen. In the event, infection is the least of their worries, as they become embroiled in a far more deadly and macabre race against the evil genius behind these deaths.

And once again I’m hugely impressed by May’s careful research and ability to convey complex science – this time in the world of medical genetics – convincingly and understandably.

The other book just had to be Lockdown, again by the same author, and released this year. He actually started researching for it way back in 2005 – fifteen years before this current real-life pandemic. At the time he was finding it impossible to find a publisher for The Blackhouse (hard to believe, huh?) and his first Enzo book.

But May’s vivid imagination had conjured up a chilling scenario that arose out of his fascination with viral epidemics.  He wrote furiously during six weeks, burning the midnight oil – only to find no one would touch it; it was too unrealistic and improbable. But when the current virus we’re familiar with hit this year, the novel was picked up by Riverrun and came out while the author was himself hunkered down in his home in France, forbidden from leaving his home except in exceptional circumstances – because of Covid-19.

London is at the epicentre of a global pandemic. It’s in lockdown. A deadly virus – with a mortality rate of nearly 80% – has already claimed the lives of hundreds of thousands, and the health and emergency services are overwhelmed. Familiar jargon, huh? Family funerals and religious services are banned, grief is on hold, bodies are burned within twenty-four hours. The prime minister and two of his children are among the dead. An emergency measure has been brought into force banning the printing and distribution of newspapers. Civil disorder is simmering, ‘the debris and detritus of a once civilised society scattered across the ruined streets‘, and martial law has been imposed. Soldiers are prepared to shoot on sight anyone who breaks the curfew.

A temporary overspill facility is being rapidly built, until, that is, the construction workers discover the body of a murdered 10-year-old child in the pit they’re excavating. Because of a dire shortage of policemen, DI Jack MacNeil is called out of hiding in a refuge for down-and-outs to solve the case as fast as possible so that building work can resume. This is no ancient crime scene: the bones of the child – who is Chinese and has an unrepaired hare lip and cleft palate – are still fresh, and what’s more, they’ve been recently stripped of flesh by a knife. Enter the experts – except some of them are sick with the virus. And on top of all this, MacNeil learns that his own young son has died of the flu. He throws all his energies into finding the killer of this little girl, a last hurrah before he leaves the Met for good.

In both books there are elements that raise an eyebrow when it comes to believability, but my mind raced off along different possible scenarios for future novels. However, more than that, May’s experience illustrates two salutary things for me. There is a time to publish and a time to refrain from publishing. And even the top names can hit fallow times.

PS. I was amused by one throw-away line in Lockdown: ‘no self-respecting looter was going to be seen dead breaking into a bookshop‘ …!!!

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The Lewis Trilogy

In the Lewis trilogy, the author, Peter May powerfully captures the atmosphere of the Outer Hebridean Islands, the customs, the traditions, the sparseness, the struggle to make ends meet, the quiet stoicism of Lewis men, the long reach of past events. As one reviewer put it: the emotional secrets of the bleak island are even deeper than its peat bog. I found the books completely mesmerising and so evocative of the islands as I experienced them a couple of years ago, and beguilingly empathetic.

Central to all three novels is Detective Inspector Fin MacLeod. Not only is he familiar with the terrain, but he was born and raised on the Isle of Lewis, so when, in The Blackhouse, he’s sent there to investigate the brutal killing and evisceration of a man he went to school with, the case resurrects memories of the past with searing intensity. His parents’ death in a hit-and-run car crash when he was only 8; his friend’s terrible accident, which left him crippled for life; the tragedy that befell his best friend’s father on Fin’s initiation into an ancient island tradition; his broken relationship with Marsaili, the girl he loved. He’s acutely aware that something dark is lurking within this close-knit community. Ghosts begin to surface, skeletons to rattle, ramifications from those dimly-understood childhood days.

The entire set of books is firmly based in reality. Blackhouses date back thousands of years, but examples have been preserved on the Isle of Lewis to this day (as in the photo above). The medieval Lewis chess men are still in existence today. The customs too are genuine. Vivid descriptions of the islanders fighting against raging storm-laden seas, negotiating sheer rock faces, living out their enmities and grudges, the annual pilgrimage by the men of Ness to cull 2000 gugas on a rocky outcrop in the raging Atlantic seas, are nail-bitingly tense. And against such authenticity, the revelations of what had really transpired all those years ago, feeling the shutters lift in Fin MacLeod’s mind, the awful truth emerge, as a huddle of men hunch together in the smoke-filled blackhouse, is all the more horrifyingly poignant.

Although Fin’s eyes were closed, they were open wide for the first time in eighteen years. The sense that he had had all his adult life, of something that he could not see, something just beyond the periphery of his vision, was physically painful. He was rigid with tension. How could he not have remembered? And yet all his conscious thoughts were awash now with memories, like the vivid recollection of scenes from a nightmare in the moments of waking.

I didn’t see the denouement in the first book coming. It’s brilliantly realised.

In the second book, The Lewis Man, Fin is called back to the island when the body of a young man is dug up in the peat bog, where it has lain undisturbed for over fifty years. It’s extremely well preserved and DNA samples match it to Tormod Macdonald, the father of Fin’s childhood sweetheart, Marsaili, and great-grandfather of his own granddaughter. The dead man has been murdered; stabbed many times, bound and dragged along a beach. But Tormod has dementia, advanced to a point where he has had to be put into care; he’s in no state to explain the connection, nor why he adopted the identity of a dead teenager. By this time, Fin, newly divorced and still grieving his own personal tragedy, has quit the police force.

‘Most people spend their lives never knowing what lies beneath the stones they walk on. Cops spend theirs lifting those stones and having to deal with what they find. I was sick of spending my life in the shadows. When all you know is the darkest side of human nature, you start to find darkness in yourself. And that’s a scary thing.’

But for the sake of Marsaili, and his new baby granddaughter, he is ready to apply all his skills, use his many connections, to unearth the truth, before the big guns from the mainland arrive, with no sensitivity for the ways of islanders, the silent stoicism, fierce loyalties, unforgiving weather, the unwritten rules, the harsh religious strictures. And what he finds is a tangled web of deceit and treachery, once again with sound foundations in the realities of life in the islands in the 50s. I was completely with Fin as he travelled the islands and the streets of Edinburgh piecing together the threads of half a century of cruel behaviours and tribal warfare, driven by a need to assuage his own sense of loss and deprivation as well as give Marsaili and their son, Fionnlagh, the answers they need to anchor their own identities.

In the last book, The Chess Men, an aircraft missing for seventeen years, is discovered in the residual mud and slime of a fifty foot deep crater left behind when a loch mysteriously and suddenly empties itself of water. What’s more, and even more oddly, the plane belonging to Ruairidh McKenzie, talented and successful Celtic rock star, is intact and undamaged. But inside is a body with terrible damage to the right side of his face and his skull; inflicted before death. And Fin, by now drafted in to help curb the poaching of fish and game on an estate, spanning vast tracts of inaccessible land, is instantly involved: his childhood buddy is centre stage, chief suspect.

By this time, I confess, my credulity is being stretched a tad too far. I’m not persuaded Fin’s life would have taken this path; and it’s hard to credit a string of murders on this island where it’s so safe nobody locks their doors and the police have very little experience with serious crime; and there’s a curious mismatch between the characters in the first two books and this one. The childhood escapades of Fin and his schoolboy cohort seem contrived and rather dull too, lacking the psychological depths and appeal of the previous writing. Nor was the denouement worth the effort of ploughing through so much inconsequential filling. So a huge disappointment.

Which all goes to show that even great writers can fall below their own high standards at times – heartening for us lesser mortals. And I’d still highly recommend the first two books. Oh, and a visit to the Hebridean islands!

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