Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. As you know if you’re kind enough to read this blog, I like classic crime fiction, and I think we can learn from it. But the great thing about crime fiction is that there are always fine new authors and novels coming out, too. One of the more recent and exciting new players on the crime fiction stage, so to speak, is Iceland’s Yrsa Sigurðardóttir. Today, let’s take a closer look at her debut novel, Last Rituals.
Last Rituals begins with a gruesome discovery at the university in Reykjavík. Gunnar Gestvik, head of the history department, finds the mutilated body of one of his students, Harald Guntlieb, in the department’s printer alcove. The police are convinced that Hugi Thórisson, a friend of Guntlieb’s, is guilty of the murder. He can’t provide a solid alibi and on the night of Guntlieb’s murder, he was heavily under the influence of drugs and alcohol. One day, Reykjavík attorney Thóra Gudmundsdóttir gets a telephone call from Harald Guntlieb’s mother Amelia. Amelia Guntlieb tells Thóra that the Guntlieb family doesn’t believe the police have the right suspect. She wants Thóra to clear Hugi Thórisson’s name and find out the truth about Harald’s murder. She offers Thóra an irresistible fee to take the case, and says that she wants Thóra to work with the Guntlieb family’s banking representative Matthew Reich. Thóra agrees to take the case and she and Matthew begin to look for the truth.
They discover that Harald Guntlieb had a fascination with medieval history, Icelandic mythology and witchcraft, and that his fascination might have had something to do with his death. Together the two of them retrace Guntlieb’s last weeks and interview his associates, friends and family members. Slowly, they piece together the kind of person Harald Guntlieb was and what happened to him. In the end, they find that his interest in medieval Icelandic history did have something to do with his death, but not in the way they’d thought. It turns out that Guntieb’s unusual personality also played a part in his fate.
While the investigation is going on, Thóra is also facing challenges on the home front. She’s a divorced mother of sixteen-year-old Gylfi and six-year-old Sóley, and it’s always an issue to arrange schedules and co-ordinate plans with her ex-husband Hannes. Hannes isn’t a particularly bad person, but he’s certainly not motivated to make Thóra's life any easier. As if that’s not enough, Thóra learns that Gylfi’s fifteen-year-old girlfriend Sigga is pregnant. There’s also Thóra’s own growing attraction to Matthew Reich and the set of decisions they need to make about their relationship. This personal drama complicates life for Thóra and at times she feels torn between the demands of her home life and the pull of her work life and the intriguing case she’s investigating. However, she and Matthew do focus on the mysteries surrounding the death of Harald Guntlieb and in the end, they piece together what happened.
One of the important elements that we see throughout this novel is the character of Harald Guntlieb. Guntlieb’s an unusual young man. He’s rather reckless and as Hugi Thórisson puts it,
“He wasn’t afraid of anything, always found crazy stuff to do and swept everyone along with him somehow.”
Guntlieb’s also charismatic in his way and his recklessness, charm and money attract more than one fan. But Guntlieb’s got a different side to him as well. He’s fascinated with mysticism and witchcraft and he does have a dark ruthless side to his character. What’s interesting, too, is that Guntlieb’s character is revealed bit by bit as Thóra and Matthew interview his friends and family members. They, too, have interesting and unique personalities and as the two sleuths get to know the various players in this story, we see that they’re multi-layered characters.
There’s also a strong element of keeping secrets in this story. Nearly all of the characters are keeping things to themselves. For instance, Harald Guntlieb’s friends all keep secrets about their own activities. So do the members of Guntlieb’s family. So do some of the people with whom Thóra and Matthew interact at the university. Even the cleaning woman doesn’t tell everything she knows about the case.
We also get a real sense of place in this novel. The action takes place in Iceland, and the reader is distinctly placed there. Part of the way Yrsa accomplishes this is in sharing some of the history and folklore of Iceland as Thóra and Matthew uncover what Harald Guntlieb was studying and how it related to his murder. Another way this is done is through the day-to-day interactions that reveal Icelandic culture. For example, in one scene, Sóley is trying to teach some important Icelandic words to Matthew, who doesn’t speak the language.
“‘Hannes-ar-dóttir,’ Sóley said emphatically, teaching Matthew to pronounce her last name.”
The food, the scenery, the Icelandic custom of creating surnames from the father’s name, and other aspects of life in that country are woven throughout the story.
And then there’s the humour. Last Rituals is in some ways a very sad story. And yet, there are threads of dry, sometimes sarcastic wit that liven the story up quite a lot. For instance, Thóra and her law partner are saddled with perhaps the least professional and competent secretary anyone could imagine. Bella is rude to the law partners and their clients, smokes in the office although she’s been told not to do so, and is notoriously slow to get anything done. And yet, the attorneys cannot fire her. Their landlord, who is also Bella’s father, insisted on them hiring her as a condition of leasing them the office space. Since they can’t really afford to move the practice, they’re stuck with her. Bella’s ongoing conflict with Thóra in particular makes for some humourous moments:
“‘Someone phoned,’ Bella mumbled…
Thóra looked up in surprise from hanging up her coat. ‘Really?’ she said. ‘Do you have any idea who it was?’
‘No. Spoke German, I think. I couldn’t understand him anyway.’
‘Is he going to call back?’
‘I don’t know. I cut him off. By accident.’
‘In the unlikely event that he does ring back, would you mind putting the call through to me? I studied in Germany and I speak German.’
‘Hmph,’ Bella grunted. She shrugged. ‘Maybe it wasn’t German. It could have been Russian. And it was a woman. I think. Or a man.’
‘Bella, whoever calls – a woman from Russia or a man from Germany, even a dog from Greece that speaks in tongues – put them through to me. Okay?’”
There are also some very funny exchanges between Thóra and Matthew as they size each other up, spar, learn to respect each other and develop a relationship. In fact, the relationship between these two characters is another element that ties this story together. It’s not a stereotypical “boy-meets-girl, they fight, they are also attracted” kind of relationship. Instead, it’s an authentic portrayal of two smart people who gradually develop a friendship and then more.
Last Rituals is an intriguing mystery that involves really interesting characters set against a unique backdrop. But what’s your view? Have you read Last Rituals? If you have, what elements do you see in it?
Coming Up On In The Spotlight
Monday 21 March/Tuesday 22 March – Skinny Dip – Carl Hiaasen
Monday 29 March/Tuesday 29 March – One Good Turn – Kate Atkinson
Monday 4 April/Tuesday 5 April – Fer-de-Lance – Rex Stout