The last detective stories I read were Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes. I have been known to read the occasional Agatha Christie – oh and there was that Patricia Cornwell book about Walter Sickert being Jack the Ripper (which I didn’t like – and am still a bit furious with), I digress already. I was drawn to this book by Peter May (a new author to me) as the story is set on the Hebridean isle of Lewis. Having discovered that some of my ancestors came from there and having never visited myself I thought that I may learn something more about the island, its scenery and ‘customs’ by reading The Blackhouse.
The Blackhouse is essentially a murder mystery and features recently bereaved Fin Macleod, a detective who escaped his Hebridean home to work in Edinburgh. The island murder has similarities with an earlier one which occurred on Macleod’s patch in Edinburgh and it is for this reason that Macleod returns. The story is many stranded and interspersed with Macleod’s childhood flashbacks – this proves to be a real page turner.
Central to the story is the ritualistic Guga hunting (an event unique to Lewis) in which men and boys from the island embark on a hazardous journey to cull gannet chicks on a treacherous bleak rock in the North Atlantic sea. Macleod’s past and present rise up to meet him like the churning waves around the strange rock where his rite of passage began. These chapters are so atmospheric that I felt at times that I was actually out there on that rock. I was amazed to learn that this ritual is no fiction though. The uninhabited isle of Sula Sgeir is home to thousands of gannets whose summer nesting in the guano encrusted cliff face brings the hunters whose quarry are the gannet chicks, which when salted and boiled are considered a delicacy. The men from the Ness area of Lewis are called ‘Guga Hunters’. Memories, emotions, childhood friends all converge, flicker. The past and present intertwine, characters shrink and grow and there is senses of unrest as the old traditions start to be challenged by the young.
What begins as a simple murder mystery soon becomes a journey of memories – some very dark, set against a dramatic landscape whose beauty is stark. The author spent four years researching, filming and producing a TV series about the Gaelic language so knows the area well and this really comes across. The book is wonderfully written and I have read many reviewers praise the authenticity of the islands description having been residents themselves. I am delighted that this book is the first of a trilogy and I look forward to reading the next books.
Book image from here
Guga image Guga hunters information from here