A German student of Icelandic history (myths and legends sort of thing), Harald Guntlieb, is found murdered at the university in Reykjavik. A professor opens a cupboard and the body falls out on top of him to be precise. The body has been mutilated - eyes gouged out and a symbol carved on his body. The police quickly arrest one of the student's friends but the murdered boy's family feel they have the wrong man. They hire Thóra Gudmundsdóttir, a local solicitor, to investigate and send a German friend of theirs, Matthew Reich, to help her. The kind of information they turn up - a weird family history of the deaths of all Harald's siblings bar one and a grandfather who has passed his obsession with the occult on to Harald, plus Harald's apparent practise of some very questionable sexual practices - make Thóra wonder if she should have taken this case on in the first place. The German sent to help is almost more of a hindrance than a help, and now her son is keeping secrets from her. If it weren't that she needed the money Thóra knows she would run a mile from this...
Susan began the book review by asking the first question:
1. What made you pick this book up?
Susan: I read a review of Icelandic mystery writers somewhere (I can't find out where now, the list I had turned out to be for Swedish crime writers) and Yrsa Sigurdardottir's Last Rituals was on it. So when I saw Last Rituals in the book store, I grabbed it. It's her first book, so it must have been a review that I saw. Basically it's Icelandic, so I was interested!
Cath: I saw mention of it on Danielle's blog - A Work in Progress. I previously had no idea that there *were* any Icelandic crime writers! Not that I'd given the matter a great deal of thought because if I had I would have realised that there had to be. Anyway, when I looked the book up I decided I that I wanted to read it and found it quite easily in the library. Result!
2. Do you read many books that are translated (ie written first in a foreign language)?
Susan: Yes. Well, I should categorize that - I really read mysteries that are translated. From Iceland - Arnuldur Indridason, from Sweden - Henning Mankell, Asa Larsson, Ake Edwardson, and new to me Karin Fossum and Steig Larsson, and from France - Fred Vargas.
Cath: Before Last Rituals, no. Since then, by some odd coincidence, I've read three! Grey Souls by Philippe Claudel and the first two Inspector Montalbano books by Andrea Camilleri. Oddly enough they're all crime books, although Grey Souls is slightly more than that. I clearly have an interest in crime stories set overseas.
Another question from Susan:
3. What do you enjoy most about foreign language books?
Susan: I love the different view we get of other countries. Even when the syntax of the English is a little bit strange - a direct translation, not always idiomatic translation - I am fascinated by what that shows about the writer and language, and I wish I could read in the original language. Because Sweden and Canada share long cold dark winters, their gloom is similar to Canada's bleak view and nature landscape that fills most of our writing. Pine trees, cold winter nights, below freezing temperatures, broken by short, searing summers when no one wants to sleep because it's light out. I really enjoy seeing the world through another's eyes - it is sometimes disconcerting, true, but I find it refreshing too. I also enjoy seeing how people are characterized, what is similar about police procedurals, investigating crime, and how similar people are no matter where they are in the world. I also learn alot about places this way, not as a travel guide, but as how the cities and streets are written about.
Cath: That's a difficult question because I'm not sure I've read enough to judge properly. I *think* it's the glimpses of cultures that are quite unlike your own. The Inspector Montalbano books, for instance, are set in Sicily, where, if the books are anything to go by, there is a culture of corruption and crime which impinges on the lives of everyone who lives there. Whether this is a serious worry in the lives of normal people, I don't know. Reading books like these tends to create certain questions in my mind which I then search for the answers to. So the answer to the question is probably that foreign language books broaden the mind and make me want to read many more books from overseas - but not necessarily translated ones or, necessarily, of the crime genre. For me I think it's almost a secondary way of indulging in armchair travel.
4. Is there something about Iceland that particularly fascinates you?
Susan: I'm not sure. I became fascinated when I lived in England, and it became a weekend getaway for the English - just a short plane ride away, and very cheap! All of a sudden, I wanted to see the geysers, the volcanic earth, and Reykjavik, and I have never lost the desire to go see. I think I am fascinated by how this culture developed so far away from the rest of the world, and what it's like that far north and still have a culture, a capital city.
Cath: Yes but I'm not sure when my interest began. It could have been when I read Avalon by Anya Seton... *many* years ago. The heroine (I can't even remember her name) is captured by Vikings and taken to Iceland and I found myself fascinated by the landscape and the history. I'd love to go there to see the bleak volcanic landscapes for myself - geologically speaking I think it's the youngest country in the world and that's an amazing concept to take in, the fact that it's still growing and changing. One of these days I *will* go.
Another question from Cath:
5. Have you read any other Icelandic authors?
Susan: Yes. Arnuldur Indridason is one of my favourite mystery writers! I love Erlendur's sense of justice no matter how long it has taken, his struggles as a father and divorced husband, and the cases he gets are interesting. There is room for a lot of darkness in the human heart, and pathos and tragedy. Against this are the police, some of whom are funny, some bitter or mean, set against Erlendur and is determination to pursue a case until answers are found. I was so happy when I saw there was another Icelandic author writing mysteries! So I was always going to read Last Rituals.
Cath: The simple answer to this is 'no'. To my shame I've always been completely unaware of Icelandic authors. But I do now have one other on my tbr mountain - Tainted Blood by Arnaldur Indridason, which I'm really looking forward to reading.
Cath's next question was:
6.. As a working mother, did you find Thora's problems with mixing her home-life and work true to life?
Susan: Yes! and it really added to the character, that she was juggling both, and that her kids were moody and didn't always want to go with their father. Very true to life.
Cath: Judging by my daughter's problems as a single mother it did seem to me to be quite true to life. I liked that aspect of it too, as crime writers usually focus on male policemen, it seems to me, and it was refreshing to have a glimpse of life from a female perspective. It made me think about reading other crime novels where the main 'investigator' is female. Ones that spring to mind are the Kate Martinelli series by Laurie R. King and P.D. James's Cordelia Gray books - but there must surely be a lot more?
Susan asked two extra questions:
7. Did you enjoy the mystery? What was a strength and a weakness?
Susan: Yes, I enjoyed the mystery very much. I didn't guess who the killer was until near the end, and then I couldn't figure out how it was done. One streggth were the characters - they were all well-drawn, from Thora, to her associate Matthew Reich, to the various suspects - I had no difficulties telling anyone apart, or remembering who was who. I enjoyed the various viewpoints as well, which added to the mystery, without revealing too much.
One weakness was the discovery of some key evidence - wouldn't the person involved who hid it, have tried to retrieve it? It would have been more interesting if the house had been broken into and the area searched, then to have it accidentally discovered. That wasn't quite believable. All this time and the person never noticed it.....
Yes I did enjoy the mystery. Like Susan. I was close to the end before it dawned on me who the killer was. One strength of the book, for me, was how well the author concealed that. I thought that was very nicely done.
No real weaknesses jumped out at me, but of the book in general I could say that at times the translation was slightly simplistic. But that's real nit-picking and not something terrible; possibly it's symptomatic of many translations as I noticed it in the Andrea Camilleri books too. But in neither case was it enough to put me off.
Susan asked a final question:
Bonus question: Would you recommend the book to be read?
Susan: Yes! 4.7/5!!!
Cath: Yes, I most certainly would! It's a skillful crime story with an unusual setting and well worth anyone's time and trouble.
Cath asked two final questions:
Bonus Question: Did you find the rather macabre background to this story - the manner of the student's death and so on - at all off putting?
Cath: I suppose I should have done, after all he fell out of the cupboard onto a tutor with his eyes gouged out and some weird markings on him and from then on there were some startling revelations about his interest in witchcraft and odd sexual practises. But the truth is I didn't find it off putting at all. I suppose I like reading books that deal with off the wall subjects and, it has to be said, that Yrsa Sigudardottir deals with these matters in a way that doesn't go into *really* gory detail. She states what happens in quite a matter of fact way and that's fine by me. If the details had been dealt with in the manner of say, a real horror story, then my reaction would doubtless have been different as I don't deal with blood and gore at all well.
Susan: Like Cath, I should have - some the sexual practices and how witchcraft was portrayed was gruesome, but the author deals with it matter-of-factly - this is what the victim was interested in - and like Cath says, the gory parts are NOT dwelled on. This is a crime novel with some horror aspects, which I found made it more intriguing. I do wish though that some good witchcraft would be portrayed for once. I get tired of it always being portrayed as leading to a bad end, when for the most part, the religion is about living in the world in a responsible way. Other than that, I found the macabre aspects very well done.
Bonus question: Are you planning to read book 2 in the Thora Gudmundsdottir 'My Soul to Take'?
Cath: Yes, I am. I'm keen to see what the author will come up with next in the way of a crime plot but also to see how her relationship with Matthew matures and how a certain occurrence within her family pans out. Hopefully it'll be a nice long series.
Susan: Oh yes! Please let it be out soon, because it looked very interesting - involves a haunted hotel......definitely an area of interest for me (hauntings, ghosts). Plus, as Cath said, there is that family angle that is very interesting too. I did enjoy her children, and the ex, and the partnership with the other lawyer, very much. Definitely a series to keep reading.
So that was my first 'buddy read' and I want thank Susan very much for wanting to read with me. It was a *lot* of fun and I hope to do it again sometime.