Mystery review: Last Rituals by Yrsa Sigurðardóttir

Icelandic title: Þriðja táknið (literally: The Third Symbol)
Genre: Mystery
Year of publication: 2005
No. in series: 1
Series detective: Þóra Guðmundsdóttir
Type of investigator: Lawyer
Setting & time: Reykjavík (mostly), Iceland; contemporary

Icelandic Lawyer Þóra (Thora in English) is hired by the parents of a German history student who was found murdered in the offices of the history department of the University of Iceland. They want her to help Matthew, an investigator they have sent over from Germany, to find out why their son was murdered and why his body was mutilated. Since they are not convinced that the suspect the police have arrested is guilty, they also want Þóra and Matthew to find the real killer.

The victim had been researching and comparing the history of witch hunts in Germany and Iceland and was the leader of a clique that practiced magic rituals. The mutilation of his body is connected to a magic spell found in an old grimoire, so it would seem logical that he was killed in connection with the practice of black magic, but there may have been a more logical reason behind it.

Review and rating:
I must admit that I had made two aborted attempts to read this book before I finally did finish it. In both cases I didn’t get beyond chapter two because I didn’t like the writing style. Not that’s its bad or clumsy or anything like that – it is in fact quite smooth, but the tone irritated me. However, it seems that Yrsa’s writing style is a bit like that used by Elizabeth Peters in her Amelia Peabody books: grating at first (although for different reasons), but once the story pulls you in it stops being annoying.

The characters of Þóra and Matthew are well-developed. Less well-developed are the characters of the members of the clique they have to deal with to find important information about the lead-up to the young man’s death, and most of the minor characters (with the exception of Þóra’s teenage son) are either stereotypes (e.g. the secretary) or simply flat. Þóra starts out as not a very likeable person: uptight, insecure, defensive and often rude; but she slowly gets more likeable as one begins to understand her better. There is an interesting balancing of power between her and Matthew. He is a friend and employee of the victim’s family, knows more than Þóra does about the case and has experience with this kind of investigation (it is hinted that he is an ex-police detective), but Þóra holds her own because she speaks both languages, knows the culture and the local laws and is good at reading people. Unusually for a detective story, her personal problems (single mother of two kids, broke after a divorce, a struggling law practice, a bitchy secretary) are actually interesting, because while they have little or no bearing on the mystery, they lighten up the dark and rather creepy story, and Yrsa is careful never to let them overpower the main plot.

The best part of the story is the plotting. The narrative is fast-paced and the twists and turns of the investigation keep the reader guessing right until the final twist. All in all, this is quite a good mystery. 3+ stars.
I have a second book by Yrsa lined up and should have a review ready later this month.


Dorte H said…
For some reason my library seems to have missed this author. Perhaps I should tell them I´d like to try out her books? :)
It might even work; they are extremely service-minded, and sometimes the head librarian hands me a new crime novel she thinks I might be interested in.
Bibliophile said…
Dorte, I think asking the library to buy it would be a good idea. It has been published in Danish as Det tredje tegn. Here is a review in Danish:

The second book (which I have just finished reading and will review soon) has also been published in Danish, as Den der graver en grav.

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