Monday, August 10, 2009

Review of Last Rituals by Yrsa Sigurdardottir, translated by Bernard Scudder, Hodder (2008, in Icelandic 2005)

I’ve read a couple of good reviews of Yrsa Sigurdardottir’s second novel, My Soul to Take, so I decided to pick up the first book in the series, Last Rituals. Scandinavian crime novels seem to be flavour of the month at the minute and Sigurdardottir joins her compatriot Arnauldur Indridason in setting her stories in Iceland.

The story follows a recently divorced lawyer, Thora Gudmundsdottir, hired by a wealthy German family to enquire into the death of their son, Harald, a history student who was in Iceland to study witchcraft in the seventeenth century. Harald, a fanatical student and follower of black magic, was found dead in the university, his eyes gouged out and his body decorated with strange symbols and modifications. Unhappy with the police investigation and convinced that the wrong man is in custody, Harald’s family have hired Thora to aid their German investigator, Matthew Reich, who has no knowledge of Iceland or Icelandic. Together they slowly start to piece together the last days of the young student and his secretive group of friends to uncover what really transpired, whilst finding time to tease and flirt with each other.

When Thora was leaving the table, he put his hand on her shoulder. ‘One final thing, Frau Gudmundsdottir.’
She turned around.

‘I forgot to tell you why I’m convinced that the man in police custody is not the murderer.’


‘He did not have Harald’s eyes in his possession. They had been cut out.’

I have to admit that while I thought the story was essentially interesting, I found I never really warmed to Last Rituals. On the positive side, I thought that Thora was an engaging character, more upbeat and humorous than most Scandinavian characters, and the discussion about Icelandic witchcraft was fascinating. The general level of the story telling, however, I struggled with. The plot was relatively straightforward, and I had the killer pegged a long way from the end, and the characterisation was generally fairly basic. I found some of the writing quite clunky and long winded at times; some of the scenes seemed contrived to discuss particular things, rather than flowing as part of the narrative; and many of the conversations were stilted (if you read them aloud they just didn’t seem like natural conversations to my ear). I wasn’t sure if the latter was a function of translation and perhaps they worked fine in Icelandic. There were some nice touches throughout, but not enough of them, and I felt the subplot involving Thora’s two children was underplayed and disappeared altogether at times and merited much further elaboration. Overall a mildly enjoyable first novel, but nothing startling.

For other (more positive) reviews see:
Eurocrime click here and here
(Another) 52 Books
Crime Scraps
It's a Crime

(just about scrapes)

1 comment:

Dorte H said...

I have this one on my shelf, and I´ll try to remember to think about her language. I bought it in Swedish though (much cheaper than Danish), which is the language I am the least proficient in of the four I read (did I make that clear?) - so I may not be the best judge.