Sunday, March 03, 2013

May's The Chessmen a riveting mystery with a palpable sense of place

Book 25: The Chessmen by Peter May

Peter May has quickly become one of my favorite mystery writers.

I've now read two of his three books featuring Fin Macleod that are set on the Isle of Lewis in the Hebrides. The books are psychologically complex with tantalizing plots and a palpable sense of place. 

The Isle of Lewis is so well-drawn and so important to the narrative it's as if its a character in these riveting mysteries.

In The Blackhouse Macleod returned to Lewis, after a decades-long absence, to solve the murder of a childhood bully. In The Chessmen he has resigned his position as a detective inspector with the Edinburgh police, and is living on Lewis with his childhood sweetheart.

In The Chessmen, the solution to one mystery only leads to another after an unusual natural phenomenon, which drains a remote loch, results in the discovery of an airplane with a body inside.

The body belongs to Lewis musician Roddy Mackenzie, who vanished 17 years earlier.  It was long-believed that MacKenzie's plane went down at sea. Now, it appears Mackenzie was murdered.

Macleod knew Mackenzie. The pair were in school together and Fin briefly served as a roadie for the band MacKenzie helped form. 

As with The Blackhouse, The Chessmen jumps between the present and the past.  Fin's memories of the band's early days, riven by competition for the attentions of its beautiful, but remote female member, lead to the discovery of a shocking secret.

The Chessmen is a superb mystery that rises above the limitations of its genre. It's a compelling exploration of how the past pervades the present. 

Book 26: Bordersnakes by James Crumley
Book 27: Out of Range by C.J. Box
Book 28: Final Account by Peter Robinson
Book 30: Red Gold by Alan Furst

All four of the books listed above, and their authors, come recommended.  Although each has appeal to different audiences.

Crumley writes noir.  His books are edgy, rife with Tarantino-like violence, hard drinking, drugs and steamy sexy.  It's not a combination I normally seek, Crumley just does it better than most.

Box's mystery series is set in Wyoming and feature game warden Joe Pickett.  I am working through the series in chronological order. Each books seems better than the last. One notable feature is how Box introduces a topical issue -- cattle mutilations, the extraction of coal-bed methane or the good meat movement -- as a plot point in each mystery.

Robinson writes British police procedurals. If you like Ian Rankin, you will like Peter Robinson. 

Furst's thrillers are set in Europe at the outbreak of World War II.  Jean Casson, the protagonist of The World At Night, returns in Red Gold. A former film producer, Casson is again enlisted in Resistance activities.  The plots are solid, but it is Furst's dab hand with atmosphere that makes these novels special. 

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