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last rituals

17 february 2010

In Yrsa Sigurdardóttir's Last Rituals, a young German graduate student at the University of Iceland is found murdered, his eyes plucked out and bizarre secret symbols scratched into his skin. Reykjavík cops reject the idea that the weird witchcraft society the victim belonged to could have had anything to do with his murder. Odd that the CID that has been so omni-competent in Arnaldur Indriðason's procedurals could have missed such an obvious connection in this one. But possibly Erlendur wasn't assigned to the case.

Instead, Yrsa gives us a standard hook out of many a private-eye novel. When the police are blinkered, the private investigator must step in to find either the fiendishly hidden or (sometimes, as here) the blindingly obvious. Yrsa's heroes are not cops at all, but the unlikely team of Matthew Reich, a German sleuth experiencing culture shock and near-hypothermia in Iceland, and Thóra Gudmundsdóttir, an attorney and single mom who struggles to keep her own life from spinning into anomie even as she unravels the most sinister of homicidal conspiracies.

Last Rituals resembles the bright, elaborate intellectual mysteries of Stieg Larsson more than it recalls Arnaldur's moodily somber Reykjavík noir. Much of the solution to the student's murder resides in the appropriate interpretation of old books and legends; Thóra and Matthew excel in keeping their Apollonian attentions on facts and chronologies.

At the same time, Last Rituals is hardly devoid of atmosphere. The banter between the detective partners is engaging, and we see Iceland partly through continental eyes, giving the novel a balance between local color and exoticism.

Bliss is it in this dawn of the great Scandinavian murder mystery to be alive. Of course, to be young would be very heaven, but even nudging into my sixth decade, I'm delighted to be entertained by this generation of policiers du nord.

Yrsa Sigurdardóttir. Last Rituals: An Icelandic novel of secret symbols, medieval witchcraft, and modern murder. 2005. Translated by Bernard Scudder. 2007. New York: HarperCollins, 2007.