And so to the final read of 2009, a debut crime novel by Icelandic writer Yrsa Sigurdadottir. In Last Rituals Thora Gudmundsdottir, a solicitor, is hired by the family of a German student, studying for his PhD in Iceland, who has been murdered and his body mutilated, to investigate the murder, after they become convinced that the police have arrested the wrong man. In her task she is aided by Matthew Reich, a German ex-policeman, and friend of the family.
This is a straightforward whodunnit, pleasurable enough to read and well-paced with enough twists and turns to keep the reader hooked, as the pair of sleuths, with their developing and confusing relationship, uncover the practices of a satanic sect. Well, I suppose it’s all a bit unlikely, but the charm of the book (which is also its weakness) is that it’s a rather old-fashioned crime novel. The main problem I found is that the murder victim and his unbelievably dysfunctional family are so disgustingly and unworthily rich, lack any kind of moral compass and have closet-upon-closets full of rattling skeletons that I found it difficult to hold them in nothing but contempt. Rather than have any sympathy for them as characters, I found myself rather glad for all their suffering. In many ways they come from a kind of Christie-era when detective novels revolved around the priveleged classes kiling each other off. This story could easily have been transposed into that world.
The persistent banter between Gudmundsdottir and Reich provides some welcome comic relief, as well as giving the author the opportunity to draw attention to the cultural differences between the two, or at least the distinctiveness of Icelandic culture. There is plenty to commend this book and I have to say that it was a pleasurable read in the run-up to Christmas. It weaknesses are probably those of a writer still developing their craft, so easily forgiven.