Last Rituals: not actually the Scandinavian Secret History

Book cover: Last RitualsWhen single mother and local lawyer Þóra Guðmundsdóttir (or Thora Gudmondsdottir (ish) to you and me) is asked to investigate the ritualistic murder of an eccentric German history student, she finds herself researching the history of Icelandic witchcraft. But would someone kill to keep the secrets of the past?

Yrsa Sigurðardóttir is ‘the queen of Icelandic crime’, so I had high hopes of this Scandi potboiler. Sadly, it failed to live up to them. Instead, there was awkward prose (translation?), very dubious character behaviour and irritating crime tropes that set my teeth on edge.

Heroine Thora oscillates between delightfully grumpy and regrettably bitchy. It’s hard to think her secretary isn’t partly so obnoxious because Thora so transparently despises her. Her unkind thoughts and comments about Bella’s weight combine with descriptions of other female characters (shrieking foreign cleaners; self-absorbed housewives; students dreaming of ‘netting a rich catch’) to provide an unfortunate – and quite possibly inaccurate – suggestion of authorial disdain for womankind.

Thora herself is occasionally magnificent – her initial assessment of her German clients, not to mention the scene in which she confronts Hannes and Sigga’s parents – but often feels naive (I for one was quite clear what her teenage son was up to) and younger than her 38 years (her almost teenage conversations with her best friend). And then there are her interactions with co-investigator Matthew, the supposedly straight-laced German corporate security bod.

Matthew alternates between bitterly sarcastic and creepily flirtatious. He ignores Thora’s (initial) indications of disinterest and steps up to – particularly unpleasant in context – uninvited physical contact. While she bats off the clearest invitations, Thora never calls him on his behaviour explicitly or internally – and soon begins teasing him in a way that can only be interpreted as combative flirting or just plain rudeness. It combines to be the least believable and least appropriate professional relationship I’ve ever read.

By contrast, the chemically-enhanced, self-absorbed student suspects look practically consistent, if unpleasant. It’s never really clear why any of them adopted medieval witchcraft – few seem forceful or focused enough, and victim Harald is so rich he surely never needed to stoop to mixing virginal hair, raven’s blood and who knows what else to get what he wanted. However, character development isn’t a strong point in this novel, so we’ll skate right past it.

The central mystery – who killed Harald Guntlieb – takes second place to Harald’s research. I found this a slightly surprising choice: there’s ample evidence for stolen money and modern witches at work, but hey – let’s read his academic notes and go on site visits. It does allow Sigurðardóttir to regale us with squicky detail of medieval magic that sound more like Inquisitorial propaganda than something anyone in their right minds (least of all 21st century students) would do, and gives her first (adult) novel a talking point for reviewers. However, in focusing on the academic detail, the novel passes up an opportunity for becoming a supernatural potboiler, except for a random scene – an abandoned plot thread? – of the students cursing Thora, which appears to have no consequences whatsoever (<snark> unless this is meant to explain her relationship choices </snark>).

Unfortunately, in the end I couldn’t help but be put in mind of a poorly-executed slacker Secret History – these students embrace the sex and drugs, but with Harald’s death have no Henry to keep them focused. Consequently, their relationships break down and half the mystery is solved by a confession.

The other half is less convenient and less believable. There’s an entertaining plot twist ([spoiler: mouse over to read]that the murderer isn’t the one to mutilate and conceal the body) almost lost in a dusty exposition from a turgidly self-important asshat. It’s a good twist to build a book around, but – like so much – pretty much wasted here.

The final chapter exploring Harald’s difficult relationship with his mother allows the novel to hit a new low, suggesting that if only she’d been more understanding of her young Joffrey Baratheon, he might have turned out better (because sociopaths just need mother’s love to make them better, right Cersei?).

I can’t help but feel that being a children’s author hadn’t equipped Sigurðardóttir to take on adult fiction – I have to assume she has improved with practice, given how highly regarded she is now in the competitive Icelandic context, but it will take some convincing to revisit this author. In trying to capture my thoughts, I’ve gone through the opposite experience to The Abyss Surrounds Us – while I retain some curiosity about Thora, I like this book even less now than when I was reading it (and I ranted all the way through, much to @oldnotup’s amusement).