Sunday, 4 January 2015

Last Rituals by Yrsa Sigurdardottir

From the moment I heard about Last Rituals I was really excited about it. It’s another find from my favourite podcast, The Readers – who actually introduced me to this entire sub-genre of crime fiction; cold climate crime, or as it is more conventionally known, Scandinavian Crime Fiction. Now, everyone has heard of some Scandanavian crime fiction – Stieg Larsson’s Girl with the Dragon Tattoo has captured pretty much everyone’s attention, and I would guess that a fair amount of readers have heard of Henning Mankell’s Wallander series – but start digging a little deeper and you’ll find that those really are just the tip of the iceberg. It seems that crime fiction has always been pretty popular in Norway, Sweden, Denmark and Iceland, just as it has been elsewhere in the world, but the Scandinavian literature was rarely translated into English and there is something about the isolation of these countries that gives cold climate crime something that other crime fiction just doesn’t have. Over the last few years however, more and more authors have started to be translated and the ‘Nordic Noir’ has started to take over the world. That being said, this is really my first foray into that world (not including Stieg Larsson which for some reason I am not counting), so I do not have a lot of knowledge on the genre. I’ve heard of a few of the authors though; Jo Nesbo, Camilla Lackberg and Lars Kepler, and even own some of their novels. Just doing a google search for Scandinavian Crime Fiction brings up lists of books, but also tons of articles about how popular it is becoming. The best evidence of this, I think, is how many of these books are being turned into television shows. Netflix is full of Nordic Noir shows and movies, most of them adapted from the many series that are out there.


I decided to start with Last Rituals because of the premise – a German student has been killed most gruesomely; his eyes have been gouged out and his body is covered in weird symbols, tattoos and carvings. The police believe that the case is cut and dry, but Harald Guntlieb’s parents don’t believe that the small time drug dealer the police have in custody is responsible for the murder of their son and so they hire an Icelandic lawyer to work alongside of their own lawyer to dig into things further. When Thora Gudmundsdottir (No, I cannot pronounce that for you!) and Matthew Riech start looking into the case though, there are way more questions than answers. Harald was heavily into witchcraft, studying it and potentially attempting to practise it, along with some other students at the university. It’s not clear at this point whether any of these friends have anything to do with Harald’s murder, but there is definitely something that they are hiding. Harald’s upbringing was certainly not conventional and his parents, although hiring the lawyers, are reluctant to provide any insight. A centuries old manuscript is missing from the university and it seems that Harald has stolen it, but no one knows why or where it is. And last, but not least, a mysterious email has thrown everything we thought we knew into suspicion.

Being that this is Nordic Noir, it is also a translation. Although I have read a ton of books in translation, up until recently, I had not really ever paid attention to it. Now that I am more aware, I find that I question my dislikes about a book a lot more. For instance, I find that this story can feel almost, stunted, at times, and I am not sure if it is because of the translation or the author. The story is told from Thora’s perspective and I must admit, at first I found her kind of annoying. There was too much jibber jabber about her personal life, but I am starting to enjoy that. It makes me feel more involved in the story somehow. The only thing that has really been bothering me is the relationship between Thora and Matthew. Clearly there is some sexual tension there, but it pops up at the oddest times, and Matthews’s character is just a little strange. He’s very stoic and kind of a dick, and then randomly he is flirtatious and funny but his flirtations seem off, kind of weird and a little creepy. Maybe this is the translation, maybe it’s because he is German, but I find it disconcerting. Luckily it doesn’t happen very often and is not impacting my enjoyment of the story.

There is a lot of history here as well, most of it about witchcraft but also some general Icelandic history; did you know that Irish monks lived in Iceland before the Vikings? One of the main lines of the history of witchcraft involves the inquisitions and the publishing of a book called the Malleus Maleficarum (or, The Witch’s Hammer) which was a guide, written in 1486, to identifying and killing witches. This struck home with me especially, as I own a copy of this book. I find witchcraft fascinating (not as in I want to practice or believe its real, but from a historical point of view), especially the witch trials and the ridiculousness of what people were able to get away with in order to kill these mostly innocent men and women. I have never actually read the book though, and now definitely have a renewed interest.The thing that I am noticing most about this book is that I really want to visit Iceland now. Yrsa Sigurdardottir (No, I cannot pronounce that either!) has made the landscape sound incredibly barren and beautiful at the same time. Iceland just seems so cut off from the rest of the world, and pretty happy about it.

I am really looking forward to reading the rest of this book. The witchcraft angle is totally right up my alley and I am enjoying the history and the scary-ness of it! And most importantly I have absolutely no idea who murdered Harald, or why…. And clearly I need to figure that out!

I wasn't really sure what tea to post for this book. I looked up teas that are popular in Scandinavia, but apparently tea isn't huge there - however, they are one of the largest consumers of coffee in the world. So my choice of tea for this book is David's Coffee Pu'erh - the best of both worlds!


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