Last Rituals: An Icelandic Novel of Secret Symbols, Medieval Witchcraft, and Modern Murder
by Yrsa Sigurdardottir
Review by Gayle Surrette
William Morrow Hardcover ISBN/ITEM#: 9780061143366
Date: 01 October 2007 List Price $23.95 Amazon US / Amazon UK / Show Official Info /
Thóra Gudmunsdóttir and her partner Bragi have set up a law office, but it came with a secretary that doesn't take messages, rarely speaks civilly, and doesn't follow directions. So, it's a miracle that Thóra manages to actually get the call from Amelia Guntlieb asking her to look into the death of her son, Harald. The Guntliebs are convinced the police have the wrong person. Thora remembers reading about the murder in the papers, but fails to see how she can help. However, the pay is tempting, the case intriguing, and Thora agrees to help.
Matthew Reich has been sent by the family to check into the case and meets with Thóra to fill her in on what he's learned so far. It quickly becomes clear that Thóra's help is needed more as a highly paid translator (Matthew doesn't speak Icelandic) than as a lawyer.
It doesn't take long before Thóra agrees that the wrong man is in jail. Harald's killing was ritualistic but in keeping with his lifestyle and research interests. Harald was in Iceland to research the witch burnings and compare them with those of Europe. However, Matthew and Thora find that there may have been other lines of research that Harald was looking into on his own that may have led to his murder.
Sigurdardóttir has written a mystery with levels within levels and weaving it all together into a coherent whole that keeps the reader glued to the chair and turning the pages. Since Harald is a doctoral student in the history department and his research may have contributed to his death, the reader is treated to much information about the witchcraft trials in Europe and Iceland. This also involves a lot of information about the reformation and religious changes taking place at the same time. When so much information must be laid out for the reader, the trick is to do it in a way that seamlessly weaves into the narrative so the reader barely notices the information being fed to them.
I found the mystery fascinating for its single-mindedness in seeking out a killer as well as for the information, historical and cultural, that added to the richness of the story. Thora comes alive as a modern woman, divorced with two children and a job, who worries that life may be passing her by, about her parenting skills, and yet can't pass up on a chance to solve a mystery. I'll look forward to more Icelandic mysteries by Yrsa Sigurdardóttir.