I always feel a bit bad when I say that I enjoy crime fiction, not because I don’t rate the genre (quite the opposite in fact) but because there is always that worry that if you say you enjoy crime novels and a good murder then you might be a secret homicidal psychopath. Not the image you want to be putting out there really is it. Yrsa Sigurdardottir has stopped me feeling strange about saying this both having met her at The Manchester Literature Festival (you can hear me interview her here) and having read her first crime novel ‘Last Rituals’ which you may have already guessed by now I thoroughly enjoyed.
I have to admit I do like books that are rather dark and brooding and that is just the atmosphere that Yrsa Sigurdardottir sets with her debut crime novel ‘Last Rituals’. After a student, Harald Guntlieb, is found dead (well he falls out of a cupboard onto his professor) at the University of Iceland, lawyer Thora Guttmondsottir is asked by his family to look into the case, she initially isn’t sure she wants the case but is won over by the amount of money it will earn her. A man has been arrested for the crime however the Guntlied family think different and so want her and another investigator they have hired, Matthew Reich, to find out what really happened.
So far, so typical crime set up. Yet this is by no means a run of the mill crme novel, it is the character of Thora and the landscape of Iceland and its past that will have you hooked and gives the novel a real edge. Thora is not perfect, but she is very real and she shows real back bone both in her personal life when dealing with her ex-husband and in her professional life when wryly taking on Matthew who seems to believe he is the one in control. She also has a wonderful humour about her, rather deadpan and cynical which really made me laugh out loud on several occasions, mainly in her dealings with Matthew but really in anyone who she meets, especially her receptionist/PA/secretary Bella who, to put it mildly, is utterly inept.
‘Someone phoned’ Bella mumbled, glued to her computer screen.
Thora looked up in surprise from hanging up her anorak. ‘Really?’ she said, adding in forlorn hope: ‘Do you have any idea who it was?’
‘No. Spoke German, I think. I couldn’t understand him anyway.’
‘Is he going to call back perhaps?’
‘I don’t know. I cut him off. By accident.’
‘In the unlikely event that he does ring back, even though you cut him off, would you mind putting the call through to me? I studied German and I speak German.’
‘Hmph,’ Bella grunted. She shrugged. ‘Maybe it wasn’t German. It could have been Russian. And it was a woman. I think. Or a man.’
‘Bella, whoever calls – a woman from Russia or a man from Germany, even a dog from Greece that speaks in tongues – put them through to me. Okay?’ Thora did not wait for a reply, not expecting one anyway, but walked straight into her modest office.
Laughing out loud at a murder mystery, unless a cosy crime maybe which believe me this isn’t – far from it, is not something I was expecting and I found it really refreshing. Having been lucky enough to have met the author and chatting with her I can see where it comes from but I must also praise Bernard Scudder who has clearly translated this wonderfully. The dry sense of humour of the book wasn’t the only thing which set it apart, I loved the fact Yrsa also brings in Iceland’s history.
I cannot really say how without giving anything away (the plot is a good one and makes the reader do lots of second guessing whilst turning the pages), but one of ‘Last Rituals’ strands involves the tales of medieval witchcraft and witches. Yrsa has clearly researched all of this heavily and yet it never came across as showing off, it just fascinated me. This is a side of Iceland I had never heard of (not that I know mc=uch about Iceland apart from the fact I have always wanted to go) so between the joys of spending time with Thora and then having the unexpected added bonus of learning about a macabre and unsettling historical and religious period of Iceland’s history made this an almost perfect read. I was gripped, entertained and horrified – brilliant!
I like books where the dark, and sometimes horrific, is merged with a sense of humour, ‘Last Rituals’ is a book that nailed this for me. It is a rather disturbingly graphic crime novel; it is also one which has a real sense of humour about it thanks to its protagonist the delightfully imperfect Thora. I cannot wait to read the rest of this series so far; with great writing and such a great main character it looks set to become a firm favourite. If you love crime and haven’t read Yrsa Sigurdardottir then you really must (and in fact you can as part of today’s Savidge Reads Advent Calendar). I have already taken the next in the series ‘My Soul to Take’ off the shelves and will be reading it in the next few weeks.
Have you dipped your toes into this series? If so what did you think? Have you found any other crime novels that are dark and yet darkly funny (I have just thought of the Kate Atkinson books actually) that you would recommend? Have you discovered a wonderful new crime series this year and if so what was it?