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It’s A Mystery: “Three things that come without asking: fear, love and jealousy.”

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The Dark Winter

By David Mark
Penguin/Blue Rider Press, 2012

The Blackhouse

By Peter May
Sterling/Silver Oak, 2012

The Dark Winter introduces Detective Sergeant Aector (Scottish for Hector) McAvoy. The Scottish-born police officer is the son of a Highland crofter and a university dropout. His beat is the Serious and Organized Crime Unit in the northern England city of Hull—“The last stop before the sea.” Physically, McAvoy is a veritable giant:

A big barrel-chested man…. Good looking, even with the unruly hair, Highlander mustache, and broad, weather-beaten face…an easy six-foot-five, there’s a gentleness about his movements, his gestures, that suggest he is afraid of his own size, as if constantly apprehensive that he will break something more fragile than himself.

He’s had a turbulent year during which he was almost killed bringing down a rogue cop. That cop, Doug Roper, was a thoroughly corrupt but wildly popular fellow officer. So McAvoy’s whistle blowing has earned him very limited respect from many of his colleagues. But then, this so-called elite law enforcement team works somewhat reluctantly—albeit jealously—under a smart, feisty, good-looking supervisor, Trish Pharaoh. Rumor has it that she was handpicked by the big brass as window dressing for the press. She has proven to be anything but.

McAvoy who often feels more valued for his computer skills than his work as a field cop, finds in Pharaoh his ultimate champion. After mischievously remarking he should have come with a “bloody owner’s manual,” she makes it clear that she thinks he’s “natural police.” She admires his intelligence and his unorthodox approach to solving crimes. McAvoy, for his part, worships her, too, but doesn’t let that interfere with pursuing any investigation on his own terms.

When the novel opens, Christmas is approaching. McAvoy is shopping with his pregnant wife and young son when he hears screaming coming from Holy Trinity, Hull’s most historic church:

Loud. Piercing. Multivoiced. This is no drunken reveler, tickled by a boyfriend chased by a pal. This is terror unleashed. McAvoy’s head snaps toward the direction of the sound…he sprints across the square.

Inside the church he finds a black teenage girl who has been brutally hacked to death. Her name is Daphne Cotton and she is an adopted refugee from Sierra Leone. It will come to light that she is the sole survivor of a similar attack in her native country, in which the rest of her family was slain. While on the case, McAvoy is called away by the Assistant Chief Constable (much to Pharaoh’s chagrin) to look into the death of an old man, Fred Stein. He has apparently committed suicide while working on a documentary about a 1968 collision at sea that claimed everyone’s life but his. McAvoy’s copper’s instinct tells him that something about the old man’s death doesn’t ring true. By the time a third corpse appears, the incinerated body of man who some years back escaped a fire that claimed his wife and children, McAvoy is facing a baffling and ugly pattern.

He has also tracked down a journalist, Russ Chandler, who is drying out in a private clinic. Chandler likes stories about the ones who got away. He’s obsessed by individuals who escaped from major catastrophes when nobody else got out alive, and has unsuccessfully peddled a book on the subject. Such “credentials” quite naturally get him labeled the prime suspect in the murderous rampage. Before it all ends there are more victims who fit the pattern, and McAvoy knows in his gut that the solution is hardly as simple as it seems. But he must go out on a very shaky limb to prove it.

The Dark Winter is a smashing debut. David Mark has given us a thoroughly charismatic cop who places integrity and ethics above all else. As an old ex-cop tells him:

“Then there are people like you, son. People who need to matter on some fucking cosmic level. People who need to find justice as if it’s some fundamental ingredient of the universe…it’s not like that. It should be, yeah…if you spend your life waiting for change, you’re going to die a disappointed man.”

Maybe, but Lord love him, that doesn’t stop McAvoy. All the characters in this novel are written with flair and unusual depth. Plus, Mark, who spent years as a journalist in Hull, brilliantly evokes the blighted city “on the bones of its arse.”.There isn’t a false note in The Dark Winter. Read it and, like me, you’ll be clamoring for more of McAvoy soon.

The Blackhouse introduces a very different Scottish detective. He is Edinburgh-based Fin Macleod who is dispatched back to his native Isle of Lewis to investigate the grisly murder of Angel Macritchie. He’s a local man, a bully, who, as Macleod well knows, has spent his life making enemies on this “most God-fearing of islands” in the northern part of Scotland’s Outer Hebrides.

The murder closely resembles a recent killing in Edinburgh. To Fin Macleod, it seems incongruous that the two could be linked. But his life is in shambles. His job is frustrating. Worse, he has just lost his only child, a son, in a horrific accident that occurred while his marriage was unraveling. Once reluctant to return to the island he had escaped almost two decades before, now he is grateful for this temporary respite.

What he does not reckon with is how immediate his past becomes. From the minute he sets foot in his home village of Crobost, the only remaining village in the Port of Ness, the past comes charging at him full force. He learns, as many have, you can’t go home again—easily.

For one thing it is August, the time of the islanders culling of seabirds, the guga harvest, a primitive rite of passage:

It was something Fin hadn’t thought about in years. Guga was the Gaelic word for a young gannet, a bird that the men of Crobost harvested during a two-week trip every August to a rock fifty miles north-northeast of the tip of Lewis. An Sgeir, they called it. Simply, the Rock. Three hundred feet of storm-lashed cliffs rising out of the northern ocean. Encrusted every year at this time by nesting gannets and their chicks. It was one of the most important gannet colonies in the world, and men from Ness had been making an annual pilgrimage to it for four hundred years, crossing mountainous seas in open boats to make their catch. These days they went by trawler…. Twelve men who lived rough on the rock for fourteen days,… risking life and limb to snare and kill the young birds in their nests. Originally, the trip was made out of necessity, to feed the villagers back home. Nowadays, the guga was a delicacy.

But there are rules: What happens on the Rock stays there. Eighteen years ago Fin Macleod was a reluctant passenger on the boat to An Sgeir, and the demons unleashed in that particular hunt are coming back to haunt him. For one thing, Angel Macritchie was a regular on the hunt. He was the cook.

Fin remembered that the only time he had been among the twelve men of Crobost, it was already Angel’s second time there. The memory was like a shadow passing over him.

Macleod’s first-person flashbacks gradually unveil conflicting episodes of horror and joy in his youth, counterpointing the third-person account of the present-day murder case. Is the murderer an islander or an outsider? Is it the work of a serial killer or a copycat sending a message? The solution to the mystery of Angel Macritchie’s murder forces Macleod to face some terrible truths about his past. Informing his tormented emotional landscape is the gut-wrenching confrontation with his first love Marsali, now married to his boyhood friend Artair. Together they have a son who might have been his, pouring salt on his already raw wounds.

Adding to the dimension of this wildly wonderful, atmospheric novel, are the folkloric descriptions of the isle. The isolation and desolation of Lewis, an apt metaphor for Macleod, meld with the evocation of it as

A kind of magical place…. And Fin thought about the crofter who had discovered buried in the sands of Uig, the Lewis chessmen, carved from walrus tusks by twelfth-century Norsemen. And he could imagine how it was possible, as legend had it, for that crofter to think that they were really elves and gnomes, the pygmy sprites of Celtic folklore, and to turn on his heels and flee for his life.

A compelling plot, beautifully wrought characterizations and superb dialogue converge into an astonishing ending, one you won’t soon forget.

Happily, The Blackhouse is the first of a projected trilogy. Scottish novelist Peter May has given us a dynamite series debut.

Irma Heldman is a veteran publishing executive and book reviewer with a penchant for mysteries. One of her favorite gigs was her magazine column “On the Docket” under the pseudonym O. L. Bailey.