The Black House

By Peter May

This is the first in a trilogy of murder mysteries set on Lewis, the largest and most northerly island in the Outer Hebrides. Black houses were the stone dwellings lived in by people across the islands until relatively recent times. They were known as ‘black’ houses because the fire in the middle of the main room and lack of ventilation led to them being constantly filled with smoke. The white houses that came along later were basically modern houses, with a hearth and chimney to allow the smoke to escape.

Edinburgh detective Fin Macleod is sent to investigate a brutal murder in the north of the island. He is chosen firstly because he is investigating a similar murder in Edinburgh and it’s possible it’s the same killer, and secondly because he is originally from the village in which the killing has taken place and speaks Gaelic.

Through a series of flashblacks told in the first person we learn about Fin’s early life on the island. These are intertwined with the present day investigation which is told in the third person. As secrets from the past are revealed Fin is dragged personally into the case.

The local men are about to leave on their traditional annual guga hunt. Guga are young gannets and as seabirds are protected under British law. However, an exception is made allowing the men of Ness to carry out their hunt once a year as it is seen as an important local tradition originating in times when the guga would have provided essential food throughout the winter when the weather was too bad for fishing.

The men are going to Sula Sgeir, a desolate rock out in the Atlantic. Once there they will be cut off from the mainland for 14 days until the fishing boat that delivered them, returns to collect them. The time on the weather beaten rock consists of long days of hard work and primitive living conditions. Fin took part in the guga hunt the summer before he left for university and knows full well what it entails. In the story his old schoolfriend’s son is about to make his first trip.

The book provides quite an accurate description of the tradition with just a few details changed – the number of men who take part is increased from ten to twelve in the novel, and the rock is never actually referred to as Sula Sgeir. Wanting to know more about the tradition I googled it and came up with this BBC web page  based on a documentary made a couple of years ago by Mike Day. The page includes a series of short videos which were quite interesting and helped me to see how close the book was to the reality.

Did I like this book? Yes, for the knowledge of the guga hunt I gained and yes it was an entertaining story. I didn’t like the switching from first to third person, though I could see the reason for this (kind of). I also wouldn’t class it as one of the best books I’ve read in this genre, but it’s certainly not the worst and so I probably will read the rest of the trilogy.

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