History professor Gunnar Gestvik has quite a surprise when he arrives at his university office on Oct. 31, 2005. No sooner does he open the door to the printer alcove than a corpse falls on him. No ordinary corpse, either. This one has a large and elaborate symbol carved into its chest and has been divested of its eyes. Small wonder the professor becomes hysterical.
A little over a month later, on Dec. 6, attorney Thora Gudmundsdottir has a surprise as well: She gets a phone call from a woman in Germany called Amelia Guntlieb who is the mother of the victim whose body professor Gestvik so unnervingly encountered. Her son Harald was in Iceland studying medieval history.
An Icelandic Novel of Secret Symbols, Medieval Witchcraft, and Modern Murder
The police have arrested and charged a sometime drug dealer with Harald’s murder, but Harald’s family has reason to think the police have apprehended the wrong man. They want Thora to work with Matthew Reich, a family representative with “investigative experience,” to follow some other lines of evidence. Reich needs a legally informed assistant who speaks German. Thora studied in Germany, and has been recommended by a former professor, somewhat unflatteringly, as “obstinate, firm and tough.” Thora isn’t sure she can help, but the Guntliebs are a very wealthy banking family, and Frau Guntlieb makes Thora an offer she can’t easily refuse: twice her usual hourly rate, plus a bonus larger than her annual salary.
Thora can sure use the money. Her law firm isn’t exactly at the top of the profession, and she’s a 36-year-old divorcee with two children—a daughter 6, and a son 16—who is finding it hard making ends meet without her physician ex’s contribution to the household finances.
So she accepts—provisionally, sort of—and agrees to meet Herr Reich, who turns out to “look about forty ... stiff and formal, dressed in a gray suit and matching tie that did not exactly create a colorful impression.”
Such is the setup, done swiftly and economically in two brief chapters, for Yrsa Sigurdardottir’s debut thriller Last Rituals. Sigurdardottir has previously written five children’s novels and has the storytelling art down pat. No lingering descriptions of landscape or atmospheric effects here, just straightforward, nicely paced narrative. In contrast with, say, The Da Vinci Code‘s continuous allegro vivace, with every chapter a cliffhanger, Last Rituals proceeds at just the right tempo: moderato.
And, unlike a lot of contemporary thrillers, for which the crime is merely a premise for philosophical and moral brooding, this one is content to be a good, old-fashioned whodunit. I figured out one mystery early on, but didn’t guess the identity of the killer until nearly the end. That’s because, right from the start, Sigurdardottir slyly directs the reader’s attention elsewhere.
Young Harald Guntlieb was an odd student and even odder person. The focus of his studies was a 15th-century treatise on witchcraft, the Malleus Malificarum, written by Heinrich Kramer and Jacob Sprenger. Harald’s grandfather was a collector of books and artifacts connected with witchcraft and black magic. Grandfather and grandson seemed to have bonded over their mutual love of this offbeat subject, and when the former died, Harald was named his sole heir—meaning Harald was wealthy on his own and not at all financially dependent on his parents, who seem to have kept their distance from their son, even before he made himself grotesque with an array of scarifications and a surgically devised forked tongue.
His weird appearance notwithstanding, Harald had a certain charisma. He could be charming and generous—though also capricious and cruel—and had attracted a circle of devotees among his fellow graduate students, none of whom had any reason for wanting him dead (neither did the hanger-on accused of killing him). Oh, and there’s a guy in England who knows what Harald was looking for in Iceland. It has something to do with Hell.
The most winning characteristic of Last Rituals, however, has less to do with suspense than with charm. Thora and Matthew are quite different in many ways. He is punctilious and methodical, if a tad impractical at times, while her method is more, shall we say, improvisational. But the two have in common a sense of drollery that enables their relationship to develop in a bantering manner that seems more natural than fictional. In fact, by the time they have solved the crime, they are well on their way to becoming a Nordic-Germanic Nick and Nora Charles.