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by Peter May
Quercus, January 2013
400 pages
14.99 GBP
ISBN: 0857382233

Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

Starting with the third book of a trilogy often isn't the best test of either a book or the series as a whole, but with THE CHESSMEN, coming late to the party really didn't matter. I was quickly drawn into the world of the Isle of Lewis, the site of the discovery of 78 elaborately carved 12th century chess pieces, mostly made from walrus ivory. The majority of these figures are housed in the British Museum in London, a matter of some controversy for those who believe the chessmen should be exhibited on the island of their discovery.

Ex-Detective Inspector Fin Macleod returns to his childhood home on Lewis, now employed as a head of security by a local landowner determined to put a stop to poaching on his land. This brings Fin into contact with an old school friend, 'Whistler' Macaskill, a man who believes it is his right to take salmon and other game from the land on which he has lived on all his life.

Together, the two men witness a freak natural phenomenon known as a 'bog burst', which spontaneously drains a remote loch of its water, revealing a long-lost aircraft in its midst that both Fin and Whistler have good cause to remember. The plane contains the body of another old friend, the successful musician Roddy Mackenzie, who disappeared on a solo flight 17 years ago. Fin suspects that Whistler knows more about the incident than he is willing to come clean about and his copper's instincts are quickly aroused.

The cover of the book, a stark landscape study in moody black and white, beautifully captures the flavour of THE CHESSMEN's remote setting. Mountains, lochs moors and the encircling sea are all drawn with a sparing but accurate pen. I normally have an extremely low tolerance for books that interweave present narrative with a story from the past, but here the teenage years of Fin Macleod, Roddy Mackenzie, Whistler Macaskill, and the beautiful Mairead Morrison, the object of all their affections, is an integral part of the story as THE CHESSMEN flows backward and forward in time, never missing a beat. Their connection arises through a successful group of musicians that shot to fame, and even some fortune, under the name of Amran.

It's an odd think in books, but fictional television characters or programmes always have a 'made up' vibe to them, and the same is true of fictional musicians, but this is something that Peter May wholly escapes in his portrayal of Amran, who could easily stand beside such success stories as Runrig and Capercaillie, or even the less well-known but very talented Rock, Salt and Nails. I remained as wholly engrossed in their story as I was in the unfolding mystery of the body in the bog and its ability to cast such a long shadow over the lives of the living.

The final sting in the book's tail would, I presume, have made more sense to me if I had read the preceding two books, and was in fact the only point at which I was conscious of not knowing something crucial. But even though I know how the overall arc ends, that certainly won't stop me from seeking out THE BLACKHOUSE and THE LEWIS MAN, and when a book is able to do that, for me at least, it means that it has succeeded on all levels.

Linda Wilson is a writer, and retired solicitor, with an interest in archaeology and cave art, who now divides her time between England and France.

Reviewed by Linda Wilson, March 2013

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)

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