I was excited to read The Blackhouse by Peter May.
From that sentence you can probably guess where this review is going.
The Blackhouse is about Fin Macleod returning to the place he grew up, after a recent tragedy in his life, to solve a murder that possibly connects to another murder he was already investigating. From the moment he’s back in the place of his childhood he is in a constant loop of having to face the darkness of his past.
The reader is shifted back and forth from present and the past as Fin navigates the murder case and his childhood memories.
Peter May is brilliant in descriptive writing. His scenes come alive on the page and you can almost feel the wind on your face.
But May showed me that you can be a good writer and a bad storyteller.
That’s harsh. This book has great reviews and won an award, so hey maybe I’m crazy. But in my humble opinion, I’m probably not.
The Blackhouse is supposed to be something of a murder mystery with a dose of psychological…something.
My first real problem with this novel is the number of unnecessary scenes that should have been a sentence or paragraph.
I can see why the prologue is there, but I still don’t think it needs to be. It’s a scene that depicts the finding of the murder victim on Fin’s home island. It doesn’t really feel right to call it a home town.
After the prologue we a dragged through a scene of Fin and his wife where we find out this tragedy that just occurred in his life. Then he’s at work and given this assignment to go to the island he grew up on.
This scene I suspect is supposed to get the reader to empathize with Fin, but giving me a tragedy without a foundation of knowledge of the character at the first scene of a book made me feel nothing for Fin. And the fact that this tragedy was touched upon here and there throughout the book as just a passing thought didn’t help.
It wasn’t set up to be believable.
Here’s what I could believe: a man so full of pain that he shuts down and feels nothing and goes through the motions of life robotically, but gradually as the story evolves it evokes those emotions out of him and he becomes human. We see his character flaw become realized – doesn’t even need to be overcome.
This is what I got: a man supposedly so full of pain that he shuts off yet feels and doesn’t ever evolve as a man. What I’m shown instead is that he’s been messed up his whole life. This alone should make me empathize, but I don’t. Why? Because Fin never has a true character arc.
Most of the scenes of Fin’s childhood were unnecessary and what was reveal in them should have been revealed naturally in the story. The set up to a lot of the flashbacks were a little cringe-worthy. We would get a character mentioning some vague occurrence from the past and Fin shrugging it off. A few more vague things would be mentioned and then something like this would happen,
“I hadn’t thought about that summer in years…”
Come on. That’s cheap.
The shift of back and forth between memory and present also created a hard story to hold on to. Every time my mind stepped on a path to follow, I was thrown back into the past.
I’ve already mentioned it, but I’ll go further into it now – characterization. This book is full of sad things and crappy lives. In that aspect I thought it fit a part of life that many authors don’t want to touch. It’s the fact that it’s crazy common to find your life took a turn you never wanted and you find yourself hating where you are, and when you meet people from your past you find their life sucks, too.
I could believe that, but hey maybe make one character likable. We still need comedic relief; the little light of optimism.
One of the notes I wrote while reading this was, “Fin sucks.”
The one person we need to like – even if it’s the “I love to hate them,” kind is the protagonist. There has to be more to the character than bland emotion.
Again, he had no true arc. He faced his past, but it didn’t change anything.
There’s a twist at the end that, in my mind, reveals why Fin is the way he is. My question is, why didn’t he come to that realization like I did?
Then we have my biggest grievance: the end. Fin find out this long-kept secret and it’s like he’s going to replace the life he was living before that tragedy that first happened with this new life.
I think what truly kept me from connecting to Fin is that tragedy that occurred right before the book opens. It felt like it served its purpose within the first few chapters and was set aside, and that bothered me the entire time.
Still, I did give this 3 out of 5 stars. Again, because it’s not bad writing per se, but bad storytelling.
I never saw a difference between the two before, so I ask you – do you think there really is a difference? Is bad storytelling bad writing at its core? Can something be written well (not just in the grammatical sense) but crafted wrongly? Let me know what you think.