I have to admit to listening to this Icelandic author at the Hay Festival and thinking ‘she’s my kind of woman’. I loved her humour, her honest and direct approach, and her ability to drop in the word ‘bloody’ without a moment’s hesitation. Icelandic? Hey, she could be a Brit, easily.
But what of her first adult novel Last Rituals which has now been translated for and published in the UK? (As well as in 35 other languages across the world.) Did this translated dark-side of noir captivate me in my crime fiction reading world? You bet. I thought it was fantastic. Read on. Please.
It’s also great to learn something when you’re reading and in Last Rituals we learn of Iceland’s history in respect of the witch hunts of the 1600s and, interestingly, the fact that Iceland only burnt one woman at the stake – alongside 20 men – unlike the rest of Europe which embraced a misogynistic spree. But, Last Rituals has a contemporary setting and the historical element is very successfully woven in.
Last Rituals opens with the discovery of the body of German student Harald Guntlieb at the University of Iceland. The police arrest a drug dealing friend of his, but Harald’s very wealthy Bavarian parents feel there is insufficient evidence, so they send their security man, Matthew Reich to Iceland to perform an investigation. As he doesn’t speak Icelandic, they seek out the services of local lawyer, Thóra Gudmundsdóttir to assist him.
Thóra, a divorced mother of a sixteen year old son and six year old daughter is having a bad day and is tempted by the offer. Money problems have Thóra wondering if she’s hit her credit card limit and car problems have her reduced to driving ‘a heap of junk’ courtesy of ‘Bibbi’s Garage’ – ‘printed all over it’ – while her car repairs compound her money problems. Thóra takes the case.
Harald proves to be an unconventional and difficult victim to fathom. He could easily make for an unsympathetic character but Sigurðardóttir plays a very clever card early on: as Thóra scours the briefing file passed to her by Matthew, it is clear that Harald’s relationship and closeness to his mother changed significantly at an early age. Thóra sees that they became estranged and this adds to both the plot and the list of suspects. Harald’s friends obviously have something to hide too…
Last Rituals presents a mystery that keeps you guessing to the end and is as rich in the aftermath of death as it is for life, which is what makes it a splendid read. Thóra, our delightful protagonist is spunky, with a sharp tongue. Matthew is initially droll but a wicked sense of humour emerges; no surprises there then, that the attraction between the two mounts. Thóra’s children and her relationship with them are well drawn: full of reality and humour. She senses that her son has some ‘issues’ and that adds a sub-plot to keep the pages turning on top of the main plot.
But be warned, there is plenty of the dark side in here. Harald is a body-modification devotee (way beyond piercings and tattoos); his topic of research as a student concentrates on the witch hunts, as previously noted; his sex life includes an interest in erotic asphyxiation.
To lighten this up, Sigurðardóttir adds great humour, not least in the form of Bella – the secretary from hell – as well as generally throughout the novel.
I don’t normally remember the last sentences of books, but this one will last as it brought a smile to my face and is perfectly on the ball for finishing a novel and setting the anticipation for a series character. It also sums up Sigurðardóttir’s style and ability to tell stories. (And yes, we have another master storyteller, here.)
BUT PLEASE DON’T BE TEMPTED TO READ THOSE LAST PHRASES BEFORE YOU’VE COMPLETED THE PRECEDING 100K+ WORDS! That would make for the mother of all spoilers on a sub-plot!
There are few that I have on my ‘stop the clocks’ list for whom I will drop almost anything to read their most recent novel, but the list just got greater by one. Yrsa Sigurðardóttir is an author to watch and READ!
She also promised at CrimeFest in Bristol that the novels just keep getting better. I trust her far more on the substance of those words, than I ever did New Labour.