Sigurdardottir, Yrsa - 'Last Rituals' (translated by Bernard Scudder)
In LAST RITUALS, Yrsa Sigurdardottir's first adult book, what could have been a straightforward strangling of a young man, is made macabre by the removal of both of his eyes, and a mysterious carving on his skin. The student, Harald, is German and had been researching into witchcraft, witches, and their capture and punishment for his MA at the University of Iceland. Unlike Germany, in Iceland most of the witches were men. However, both cultures seemed to have used the same 'reference' book 'Malleus Maleficarum' or Witches Hammer. Harald was obsessed with magic, the occult, witches and this book to the extent that he had a close group of friends that formed part of a secret society dedicated to their study. Was his murder as result of his obsession, and if so, how?
The police have already locked up their prime suspect, one of Harald's drug dealing friends. But he insists he is innocent and Harald's mother thinks that there is something the police have overlooked. She asks Thora, a lawyer to team up with Matthew, a German investigator, to find out the truth. Thora is not a detective but a lawyer. But, she was personally recommended to Harald's mother by a professor who taught her in Berlin, because of her tenacity. She is a single mother with two children, who has to balance her investigation with the needs of her typically teenage son, and six year old daughter. The offer of a large sum of money to become involved in the investigation tempts her to agree.
The combination of Thora and Matthew is an entertaining one, with a strong contrast between the carefully dressed Matthew, with his shiny shoes and elegant suits, and the practical Thora, who has an eiderdown coat and sensible shoes for the cold Icelandic weather. As well as getting to grips with the investigation these two have to get to grips with each other, and there is quite a lot of teasing on both sides, as they learn to work with and trust each other. As always, things are not always what they seem. Matthew is somewhat secretive about Harald's family background, but there seems to be something about Harald's upbringing that might be important, and has certainly led to his obsession with witchcraft. Harald's friends are also obviously bothered by something, but do not want to reveal their secrets. Even Harald's landlady knows more than she is telling.
Gradually, Thora and Matthew discover what they can about Harald's life in Iceland, his last few days before the murder and eventually who the murderer is. Iceland, and its religious history make an intriguing backdrop to the murder investigation. My one criticism would be that while the stories of witchcraft and sorcery from medieval times were interesting, I think they could have been cut back a little, without detracting from the overall story. The book is nicely paced, the clues are well signposted, and Thora is a strong and likeable character that could easily be developed in a series of future books. Definitely one to recommend.
Read another review of LAST RITUALS.
Michelle Peckham, England