Last Rituals, by Yrsa Sigurdardottir, is an Icelandic-noir crime novel, featuring a particularly gruesome murder, irresistibly combined with sorcery and witchcraft. I learned a great deal about these ancient practices in the course of finding out whodunnit, including a tasty gobbet of information about corpse breeches. I do like to be informed as well as entertained.
The subject matter of the novel is surprising in that Yrsa spent the first seven years of her writing career in children’s fiction, and this 2005 novel was her debut in adult fiction. It’s as if all the sweetness and light just got too much, and she decided to do something completely different. The Scotsman has an interview with the author from 2010.
Last Rituals is a splendid read, a page-turner if ever there was one. I gobbled it up in one day, remarkable because I’m usually a slow reader. Yrsa’s protagonist, Thora Gudmundsdottir, is very much like herself. A professional woman, in this case a lawyer rather than her real day job of civil engineer, 30-something mother of 2 children, living in the up-market suburb of Seltjarnarnes in Reykjavik. Her description even fits the author’s photo.
A post-graduate German student, Harald Guntlieb, studying at the University of Iceland, is found strangled with both eyes removed. One of his drug dealer friends is quickly arrested for the crime, but Thora receives a phone call from the victim’s mother, asking for help in an independent investigation – she does not believe the drug dealer was responsible. She sends the family’s security chief (they own a bank) to Iceland to help. Matthew Reich is a tough, capable ex-detective, and completely out of his cultural depth, so they make a good team as they begin to rub the edges off each other’s preconceptions.
Thora’s sympathetic and appealing character is extremely well-drawn, as are her children Soley (6) and Gylfi (16). It’s through Thora’s eyes that we see Matthew evolve from a martinet to a relaxed, likable man as they get deeper into the investigation.
Much of this investigation revolves around a group of students who had formed a witchcraft and sorcery club with Harald, as well as two of their professors. There’s a lot about drink, drugs, and sex as the lifestyle of young Icelanders, as represented by this group of students. The novel also takes a trip to a remote sorcery and witchcraft museum in Holmavik, NW Iceland. This video shows some of the exhibits the novel talks about.
The novel works on many levels. As a whodunnit, it had me guessing right to the end, but I have to confess that I’m lazy in these matters, less concerned with finding the murderer and more interested in the characters. In this case it’s very rewarding. I was much taken by Thora, her family, and her developing relationship with Matthew. And Harald’s peculiar pychopathology is fascinating. Less interesting are the drinking, drug-taking, and sexual antics of the students he has drawn into his circle – they seem merely stupid.
Then’s there’s the allure of books and scholarship, enough to make me salivate. The novel revolves around a search for a rare copy of the Malleus Maleficarum, a theological justification and user manual for the torture of those suspected of witchcraft. There are many other obscure and fascinating texts woven into the story. How could I resist?
Finally, there’s Iceland, that strange country I want to visit more than ever.
If you like this first outing for Thora, there are 3 more novels with her as protagonist, which I intend to read: My Soul to Take (2009), Ashes to Dust (2010), and The Day Is Dark (2011). Looks like the subject matter hasn’t got any more cheerful, I’m glad to say.