Last Rituals – Yrsa Sigurdardottir

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.

Hodder Books, paperback, 2008, fiction, 432 pages, kindly sent by the publishers

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?


Filed under Books of 2011, Hodder & Stoughton, Review, Yrsa Sigurdardottir

19 responses to “Last Rituals – Yrsa Sigurdardottir

  1. Pingback: Yrsa Sigurdardottir – The Savidge Reads Advent Calendar Day 19 | Savidge Reads

  2. Louise

    This sounds right up my street… I love a good ol’ murder and set in Iceand, one of my favourite places! (you really should go it’s beautiful) I never get books for Christmas, so I’ll be getting this as a present for me, from me! 😉

  3. Femke

    I really enjoyed your interview with the author, so nice to have a woman investigator for a change! I really like the Donna Leon crime books, featuring Commissario Brunetti, they are set in Venice. These are by no means new, but I only recently discovered them. I am not sure there is so much humour in them, but there is a lot of eating of gorgeous Italian food and drinking coffee.

  4. I too love a dark humor and a good gloomy mystery. But I haven’t discovered any new dark series in a while, so I’d love to check this one out. The series I fell in love with this year was Louise Penny’s Armand Gamache series. I’d read and enjoyed the first, Still Life, a couple years ago, but somehow hadn’t followed up on the others. In the last six months I’ve read them all and am now in that sad stage of having to wait for her to publish the next volume.

  5. Ooh, thank you for the generous giveaway of the first 4 books. This series sounds RIGHT up my street. Crime series I have discovered this year are Rizzoli & Isles (I read the first 8 back-to-back) and love them all. I also discovered S J Boltons crime books (also highly recommended). I love Kate Atkinsons books too and the humour aspect definitely appeals to me.

    Thanks for another great giveaway, Simon, and have a wonderful and healthy Christmas x

  6. Ooo, I am eager to try some of these out! I’ve been intrigued by the dark, Scandinavian crime trend, but haven’t been sure where to start, since The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo sounded like it had a little too much violence against women for my taste… I’ll have to check these out and see if I fair better

  7. Ruthiella

    I have been looking around this year actually for a mystery/crime series to get into. So far I have read the first Duncan Kincaid book by Deborah Crombie, the first Inspector Morse, the first and second Cliff Janeway mysteries by John Dunning and the first and second Dublin Murder Squad novels by Tana French. I am definitely going to continue with the Morse, but I am a bit iffy on whether or not to continue with any of the others. I will have to check out Sigurdardottir!

  8. Cindy S

    thanks for the give aways. this one is right up my alley.
    I recently found the french mystery author Fred Vargas. she has such quirky characters. also, the american author Carol O’Connell is very dark and twisted.

  9. Bet

    My favorite crime books with dark humor are Kate Atkinson’s. I haven’t read anything like them, ever!

    This is not a new crime series, but I discovered the books by Benjamin Black. They have a lot of character development, which is important to me in any book.

    I would love to win this give-away!

  10. Stephanie

    These novels sound a treat, Simon. The books of Arnaldur Indridason and the stories of Insp Sejer are an absorbing read and also bear the Icelandic brush of austerity – there’s a touch of the isolation of Kurt Wallander about Insp Sejer. You learn some of the history of this area from these novels as well.
    I also recommend the Arkady Renko series by Martin Cruz Smith. These books traverse Russia’s history of the last 30 years. There’s a new Arkady Renko book out this year called ‘Three Stations’ – on my TBR.
    What is it about solitary men and fictional crime detectives? Do real down to earth family men stay away from crime solving?

  11. I remember mentioning a while ago that Last Rituals was on my reading list too. It’s not very polite (my excuse is, it’s late and I’ve been Christmas shopping) but I’m going to just give the link to my blog post instead of re-hashing everything here.
    My current read is The Bomber by Liza Marklund, so more Nordic Noir – I wouldn’t say there was much humour in it though.

  12. When I finished The Body Finder on the way into the office I needed to find something to read for the journey home. After a quick scout round the office I found a copy of “Last Rituals” & thought I would give it a go – and found myself gripped by an excellent crime novel.

  13. kimbofo

    I read a lot of “cold crime” (I love that term, by the way, which you use on The Readers), but Yrsa Sigurdardottir seems to have escaped my attention. I do highly recommend her fellow Icelandic novelist Arnaldur Indriðason (I’ve reviewed all his novels, except his latest one, if you want to take a peek in my archives), though.

    I can also recommend Karin Fossum (Norwegian), because she’s more interested in the affects of a crime on the victim’s family rather than tying up loose ends and ensuring justice triumphs in the end; Karin Alvtegen (Swedish), who also happens to be the great niece of Astrid Lindgren, author of Pippi Longstocking, so writing obviously runs in the family!; and Johan Theorin (also Swedish), who writes very atmospheric, spooky kind of thrillers.

    Earlier in the year I also read Åsa Larsson’s Until Thy Wrath Be Past and thought it was superb (it’s set in rural Sweden). And I loved Jussi Adler-Olsen’s Mercy, which I awarded 5 stars!

  14. This sounds fun. Raymond Chandler and Ira Levin are great examples of mixing crime and comedy to good effect.

  15. Pingback: Icelandic Reads, Authors & Bookshops… | Savidge Reads

  16. Pingback: My Soul to Take – Yrsa Sigurdardottir | Savidge Reads

  17. Pingback: I Remember You – Yrsa Sigurdardottir | Savidge Reads

  18. On the basis of this review my son gave my wife a copy of this book for Christmas. She is now reading her fifth novel by Sigurdardottir! Thank you, DP

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