Last Rituals – Yrsa Sigurðardóttir

YSLR I have to admit to listening to this Icelandic author at the Hay Festival and thinking 'she's my kind of woman'.  I loved her humour, her honest and direct approach, and her ability to drop in the word 'bloody' without a moment's hesitation.  Icelandic?  Hey, she could be a Brit, easily.

But what of her first adult novel Last Rituals which has now been translated for and published in the UK?  (As well as in 35 other languages across the world.)  Did this translated dark-side of noir captivate me in my crime fiction reading world?  You bet. I thought it was fantastic.  Read on.  Please.

It's also great to learn something when you're reading and in Last Rituals we learn of Iceland's history in respect of the witch hunts of the 1600s and, interestingly, the fact that Iceland only burnt one woman at the stake - alongside 20 men – unlike the rest of Europe which embraced a misogynistic spree.  But, Last Rituals has a contemporary setting and the historical element is very successfully woven in.

Last Rituals opens with the discovery of the body of German student Harald Guntlieb at the University of Iceland.  The police arrest a drug dealing friend of his, but Harald's very wealthy Bavarian parents feel there is insufficient evidence, so they send their security man, Matthew Reich to Iceland to perform an investigation.  As he doesn't speak Icelandic, they seek out the services of local lawyer, Thóra Gudmundsdóttir to assist him.

Thóra, a divorced mother of a sixteen year old son and six year old daughter is having a bad day and is tempted by the offer.  Money problems have Thóra wondering if she’s hit her credit card limit and car problems have her reduced to driving ‘a heap of junk’ courtesy of ‘Bibbi’s Garage’ – ‘printed all over it’ – while her car repairs compound her money problems.  Thóra takes the case.

Harald proves to be an unconventional and difficult victim to fathom. He could easily make for an unsympathetic character but Sigurðardóttir plays a very clever card early on: as Thóra scours the briefing file passed to her by Matthew, it is clear that Harald’s relationship and closeness to his mother changed significantly at an early age.  Thóra sees that they became estranged and this adds to both the plot and the list of suspects.  Harald’s friends obviously have something to hide too…

Last Rituals presents a mystery that keeps you guessing to the end and is as rich in the aftermath of death as it is for life, which is what makes it a splendid read.  Thóra, our delightful protagonist is spunky, with a sharp tongue.  Matthew is initially droll but a wicked sense of humour emerges; no surprises there then, that the attraction between the two mounts.  Thóra’s children and her relationship with them are well drawn: full of reality and humour.  She senses that her son has some ‘issues’ and that adds a sub-plot to keep the pages turning on top of the main plot.

But be warned, there is plenty of the dark side in here.  Harald is a body-modification devotee (way beyond piercings and tattoos); his topic of research as a student concentrates on the witch hunts, as previously noted; his sex life includes an interest in erotic asphyxiation.

To lighten this up, Sigurðardóttir adds great humour, not least in the form of Bella – the secretary from hell – as well as generally throughout the novel.

I don’t normally remember the last sentences of books, but this one will last as it brought a smile to my face and is perfectly on the ball for finishing a novel and setting the anticipation for a series character.  It also sums up Sigurðardóttir’s style and ability to tell stories.  (And yes, we have another master storyteller, here.)

BUT PLEASE DON’T BE TEMPTED TO READ THOSE LAST PHRASES BEFORE YOU’VE COMPLETED THE PRECEDING 100K+ WORDS!  That would make for the mother of all spoilers on a sub-plot!

There are few that I have on my ‘stop the clocks’ list for whom I will drop almost anything to read their most recent novel, but the list just got greater by one.  Yrsa Sigurðardóttir is an author to watch and READ!

She also promised at CrimeFest in Bristol that the novels just keep getting better.  I trust her far more on the substance of those words, than I ever did New Labour.


9 thoughts on “Last Rituals – Yrsa Sigurðardóttir

  1. Peter

    I don’t attend three festivals each weekend the way you seem to do, but my experience with the one I’ve attended was similar to the experience you report here. After finding several authors whose work I had not previously read to be charming company, I read and enjoyed their books. I suppose that might make us a bit uncomfortable when we don our critical hats, but I’ve talked myself out of that. I like to think festivals make everyone part of one community. And if I were an author, I’d find that a fine way to sell books.
    Detectives Beyond Borders
    “Because Murder Is More Fun Away From Home”

  2. Karen C

    “There are few that I have on my ‘stop the clocks’ list for whom I will drop almost anything to read their most recent novel, but the list just got greater by one. Yrsa Sigurðardóttir is an author to watch and READ!”
    Couldn’t agree more…. I also thought that the book blurb was grossly unfair to Matthew – it made him out to be somewhat dour and boring or even nasty and he was nothing of the sort.

  3. crimeficreader

    I agree with you. But there is a downside too. It’s possible to meet someone (an author) and think ‘what a twit’. Hence, you may find yourself with at least seven people telling you ‘Get over it. His/her novel X is wonderful; please give it a try’. If they are friends of said author it can become a bit more direct ‘You must read X. You’ll enjoy it.’ Er no, not when I foudn the author to be a complete idiot.
    But, blessings in disguise, it’s also possible to meet or hear an author who is so captivating that the novel begs to be read. The Hay Festival likes to feature new writers and this year they did that through their Hay 21 series which you can find here:
    For the crime contingent, Tom Rob Smith and Simon Lewis appear on this list and 2 out of 21 ain’t bad. They also had a decent representation of crime authors this year.
    Simon Lewis’s Bad Traffic will also feature soon on here. He is certainly another one to watch.
    By the way, if I hate a novel it will not appear on here. Regardless of what I think of the author.

  4. crimeficreader

    Hi Karen,
    I agree with you. I found Sigurðardóttir to be a master storyteller. She has more than one plot strand, but still manages to keep it simple and not fall into the trap of convenience and coincidence.
    The blurb on Matthew did not ring true for me too. He was as I’ve found Germans in the past – when I worked for a German bank – a little distant and clinical to start with; warm and charming shortly thereafter.
    I have no idea what they are like the morning after though… 🙂

  5. Helene

    I don’t know what to think of this book. After reading your post I went to to see if it was available. And I read their “Product description” (
    and it changed my tune!
    From Publishers Weekly
    Similar in plot to Swedish author Helene Tursten’s The Glass Devil, this first in a new series from Icelandic author Sigurdardottir offers little readers have not seen before.[…]The author gives less of a sense of her native land than other contemporary Scandinavian crime writers like Karin Fossum, and the identity of the killer will surprise few.
    I’m totally lost!

  6. crimeficreader

    I’ve not read Tursten so I cannot compare, but I consider the Publishers Weekly comments to be harsh and a tad careless in giving away some of the sub-plotting there. Others I’ve met who have read this novel have also rated it highly.

  7. Maxine

    I have finally read Last Rituals and agree it is fantastic. I am a fan of the Helene Tursten novels but I would not say these are similar, other than the fact that they both feature professional women with children. Tursten’s are police procedurals with more in common with Sjowell/Wahloo’s Martin Beck series than Yrsa S’s book. Last Rituals perhaps has more in common with the Asa Larsson style of Scandinavian crime fic, but who cares, it is an excellent book in terms of plot, character, meatiness and as you say, witty deadpan repartee between Thora and Matthew. Another star in the crime-fiction firmament.

  8. cfr

    So pleased to read you loved the novel. For me, Yrsa carried a good plot, but also had a great take on life, in general and family life, especially. Hence the reasons I said the last lines were superb. They were the icing on the cake. (If you’ll excuse the unintended pun…)


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