Last Rituals by Yrsa Sigurdardottir

Frank Wilson
The Philadelphia Inquirer (MCT)

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.

Last Rituals

Publisher: Morrow
Subtitle: An Icelandic Novel of Secret Symbols, Medieval Witchcraft, and Modern Murder
Author: Yrsa Sigurdardottir
Price: $23.95
Length: 314
Formats: Hardcover
ISBN: 9780061143366
US publication date: 2007-10

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.

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.


In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Keep reading... Show less

Pauline Black may be called the Queen of Ska by some, but she insists she's not the only one, as Two-Tone legends the Selecter celebrate another stellar album in a career full of them.

Being commonly hailed as the "Queen" of a genre of music is no mean feat, but for Pauline Black, singer/songwriter of Two-Tone legends the Selecter and universally recognised "Queen of Ska", it is something she seems to take in her stride. "People can call you whatever they like," she tells PopMatters, "so I suppose it's better that they call you something really good!"

Keep reading... Show less

Morrison's prose is so engaging and welcoming that it's easy to miss the irreconcilable ambiguities that are set forth in her prose as ineluctable convictions.

It's a common enough gambit in science fiction. Humans come across a race of aliens that appear to be entirely alike and yet one group of said aliens subordinates the other, visiting violence upon their persons, denigrating them openly and without social or legal consequence, humiliating them at every turn. The humans inquire why certain of the aliens are subjected to such degradation when there are no discernible differences among the entire race of aliens, at least from the human point of view. The aliens then explain that the subordinated group all share some minor trait (say the left nostril is oh-so-slightly larger than the right while the "superior" group all have slightly enlarged right nostrils)—something thatm from the human vantage pointm is utterly ridiculous. This minor difference not only explains but, for the alien understanding, justifies the inequitable treatment, even the enslavement of the subordinate group. And there you have the quandary of Otherness in a nutshell.

Keep reading... Show less

A 1996 classic, Shawn Colvin's album of mature pop is also one of best break-up albums, comparable lyrically and musically to Joni Mitchell's Hejira and Bob Dylan's Blood on the Tracks.

When pop-folksinger Shawn Colvin released A Few Small Repairs in 1996, the music world was ripe for an album of sharp, catchy songs by a female singer-songwriter. Lilith Fair, the tour for women in the music, would gross $16 million in 1997. Colvin would be a main stage artist in all three years of the tour, playing alongside Liz Phair, Suzanne Vega, Sheryl Crow, Sarah McLachlan, Meshell Ndegeocello, Joan Osborne, Lisa Loeb, Erykah Badu, and many others. Strong female artists were not only making great music (when were they not?) but also having bold success. Alanis Morissette's Jagged Little Pill preceded Colvin's fourth recording by just 16 months.

Keep reading... Show less

Frank Miller locates our tragedy and warps it into his own brutal beauty.

In terms of continuity, the so-called promotion of this entry as Miller's “third" in the series is deceptively cryptic. Miller's mid-'80s limited series The Dark Knight Returns (or DKR) is a “Top 5 All-Time" graphic novel, if not easily “Top 3". His intertextual and metatextual themes resonated then as they do now, a reason this source material was “go to" for Christopher Nolan when he resurrected the franchise for Warner Bros. in the mid-00s. The sheer iconicity of DKR posits a seminal work in the artist's canon, which shares company with the likes of Sin City, 300, and an influential run on Daredevil, to name a few.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.