LAST RITUALS - Yrsa Sigurdardottir
Firstly, it has to be said - the book blurb doesn't do Reich any favours and if he was a real person he'd have every right to be slightly miffed about the description of himself as boorish. Sure he's a little stiff and formal in the early part of the book, but that's all it is - he's not boorish at all, and there is a twinkle of a teasing sense of humour that reveals itself as LAST RITUALS proceeds.
That sense of humour is part of what's notable about LAST RITUALS. The subject matter is quite dark, menacing and more than a little bit weird. The body of the young German student has been desecrated after death - the eyes gouged out. But before death, Harald has self-inflicted some odd body art and self-mutilation - all it seems, part of his deep and obsessive interest in witchcraft, magic and the absurd / the violent.
Thora and Matthew are investigating his death as Harald's family don't believe he was killed by his drug dealer - why, well that's probably not the point - and it's not dwelt on in the book. Matthew works for Harald's family and he's sent to Iceland, and because of Thora's background studying in Germany she's pulled into the investigation to assist. Matthew does need some help - he can't speak Icelandic and he struggles to understand the people and their customs plus he doesn't like eating fish that much - in a country where it's a staple food. So he's a bit grumpy and a bit at a loss. Mind you Thora doesn't have to deal with any of that, but she is as lost in the investigation as Matthew. They both agree with Harald's family that it doesn't seem like the drug dealer was involved, and it does look like his friends must have something to do with this - the magic society that they have formed is close and secretive and more than a little weird. The only way to get to the bottom of this is to understand Harald himself, and that's a path that's hard to take.
Sure the subject matter - or method of death for Harald is gruesome, and the magical customs and interests that he had in life are often-times gross and frequently just peculiar, but LAST RITUALS isn't automatically a gruesome and dark book. There is a deftness in the humour used, in the characterisations that lifts the book into something that you really can't help but get involved in. Even Harald, after death, is somebody that seems a bit lost, and there is definitely something odd in his relationship with his own family (and right through the family for that matter).
There's some romance in the relationship between Thora and Matthew that you can really see coming - but it's not overdone or cloying or overly sentimental - it fits right in with the two persona's, and it's tempered by happenings in Thora's own life that just felt so realistic that it worked. There is a heavy concentration on the history of Icelandic and German witchcraft - the magic and the rituals Harald is, after all, studying it as part of his course before he dies. Maybe that will annoy some readers a bit as the concentration is frequently on those components. This reader loved it as it fleshed out the people, fleshed out the world in which they operated and highlighted Harald's fascination and obsession.
At a university in Reykjavík, the body of a young German student is discovered, his eyes cut out and strange symbols carved into his chest. Police waste no time in making an arrest, but the victim's family isn't convinced that the right man is in custody. They ask Thóra Guðmundsdóttir, an attorney and single mother of two, to investigate. It isn't long before Thóra and her associate, Matthew Reich, uncover the deceased student's obsession with Iceland's grisly history of torture, execution, and witch hunts. But there are very contemporary horrors hidden in the long, cold shadow of dark traditions. And for two suddenly endangered investigators, nothing is quite what it seems ... and no one can be trusted.