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Last Rituals: A Novel of Suspense [Paperback]

Yrsa Sigurdardottir
4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (3 customer reviews)
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Book Description

March 30 2009

At a university in Reykjavík, the body of a young German student is discovered, his eyes cut out and strange symbols carved into his chest. Police waste no time in making an arrest, but the victim's family isn't convinced that the right man is in custody. They ask Thóra Gudmundsdóttir, an attorney and single mother of two, to investigate. It isn't long before Thóra and her associate, Matthew Reich, uncover the deceased student's obsession with Iceland's grisly history of torture, execution, and witch hunts. But there are very contemporary horrors hidden in the long, cold shadow of dark traditions. And for two suddenly endangered investigators, nothing is quite what it seems . . . and no one can be trusted.


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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. As with Tursten's novel, the spectre of demon-worship is at the heart of the mystery, after the strangled corpse of Harald Guntlieb is discovered with his eyes gouged out. Guntlieb, a German student, was attending graduate school in Iceland, examining the latter country's history of witch-hunting, an academic pursuit that may have taken on more personal overtones. His grieving parents, who had already suffered the loss of a child, enlist attorney and single mother Thóra Gudmundsdôttir to objectively assess the police case against a drug addict arrested for the murder. Aided by an attractive ex-German police officer, Gudmundsdôttir diligently tracks down the dead man's friends and colleagues, before arriving at the truth. 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.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

Review

'Dark, deep and icy as an Icelandic fjord; this is a rich and rewarding debut novel of ancient mysteries and very modern murder.' -- Mark Billingham 20071207 'Given the dark subject matter, this is a surprisingly funny book... a quirky and interesting read.' -- Guardian 20071222 '..a grisly chiller set in the depths of winter... Her mystery is absorbing and, untypically, instead of the usual gloomy middle-aged man, her sleuth is a young woman... It's an accomplished debut, with credible characters and a personable heroine.' -- Sunday Telegraph 20080106 'a unique talent in the field... an exhilarating experience... [She] matches Tess Gerritsen and Kathy Reichs in the bloodchiller stakes.' -- Waterstone's Books Quarterly 20080129 'very good... This is entertaining, well-plotted and cleverly combines the historical and macabre with Thora's life.' -- Marcel Berlins, The Times 20080120 'an intricately plotted tale that keeps the reader guessing whodunnit, or indeed whether it was murder at all, right until the very end.' -- Sunday Express 20080225 'After its grisly opening, LAST RITUALS turns out to be a surprisingly light and playful novel, with a jaunty translation by the late Bernard Scudder.' -- Daily Telegraph 20080120 'Suspenseful, compelling and unique.' -- Kirkus Reviews 20070801 --This text refers to an alternate Paperback edition.

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Customer Reviews

4.0 out of 5 stars
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Most helpful customer reviews
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars More Educational Than Action Packed Dec 3 2007
By Debra Purdy Kong TOP 500 REVIEWER
Format:Hardcover
Icelandic lawyer, Thóra Gudmundsdottir is puzzled when German resident, Amelia Guntlieb, wants to hire her to find out who really murdered her son, Harald. The Guntlieb family believes the police arrested the wrong man, and because Harald was studying at a university in Reykjavík, where Thóra lives, they ask her to look into the matter. Thóra doubts she can find evidence to change events, but since she needs the Guntlieb's generous fee, she agrees to investigate. Sent to assist her, is the family's representative Matthew, a stoic, condescending man. But as Thóra delves into Harald's somewhat disturbing life, she comes to appreciate Matthew's presence.

The development of this relationship is one of the book's positive aspects, but I had problems with Yrsa Sigurdardóttir's debut mystery, LAST RITUALS. First, there's little emotion throughout most of the book. Other than doing a good job, nothing's at stake for Thóra. No threats, no violence, and little action. Interviews, some leg work, and document reading makes the novel's pacing painfully slow in places. For instance, sixteen pages show Thóra reading a report about Harald's life. Granted, Harald's life was odd and he was working on a comparison of witch hunts in Iceland and Germany (plenty of historical detail is provided), but the novel was easy to put down in a number of places.

Another problem is that Thóra's voice is so intellectual and formal much of the time that it was tough to warm up to the character. The long, carefully articulated inner monologue didn't sound natural, even for a smart lawyer. This book was translated so who knows if this was the author's style or a translation issue?
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Untypical Mystery July 25 2009
By Toni Osborne TOP 100 REVIEWER
Format:Paperback
First novel featuring attorney Thora Gudmunddottir

This crime fiction captures and brings our attention to the witch hunts of the 1600s, a darker side of Iceland's rich history.

The setting is contemporary and the historical elements are flawlessly interwoven into the story. As a main plot, the author recounts the murder of a German student Harald Guntlieb, known to be unconventional and born into a wealthy Bavarian family.

His body was discovered at the University of Iceland and police hastily arrested Harald's drug dealing friend. His parents felt that there was insufficient evidence and hired the investigator Matthew Reich, not fluent in the local language he in turn summoned the help of Thora Gudmundstottir, a well known lawyer.

Full of mysteries, this tale piques one's interest from the start by bringing forward a multitude of interesting characters in sub-plots. We learn the amazing puzzle has a dark side; Harald was obsessed with tattoos and body piercing and practiced erotic asphyxiation. He was also highly influenced by the local history of witch hunts involving torture and execution.

The author doesn't mince her words but skilfully uses humour to give us a lighter side. The characterization is superbly presented, Thora is a delightful protagonist with a sharp tongue and a spunky attitude, Matthew has a wicked sense of humour to go with his sex appeal. The strong contrast in their characters present an entertaining combination.

I enjoyed this mystery for its absorbing, untypical and compelling subject matter, a unique launch into a promising series.
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5.0 out of 5 stars excellent book April 3 2010
By Brenda Pink TOP 500 REVIEWER
Format:Paperback
This first book from the Icelandic author is an excellent book. I've read many books recently by authors with English as a second language and feared the same issues with this book - stilted English or poor proofing. However, this book had impeccable English. The story is basically an exciting murder mystery. While the story involves delving into the dark side of magic and witch hunting, that is not really what the story is about. The ending isn't incredibly surprising, but does offer a few twists and turns. For a character who is found dead on the first page, Harald turns out to be a very interesting fellow and the story leads to revealing his murderer and also the story behind why Harald was such an odd person in life. Sigurdardottir has let loose a writing talent that will see me looking for future books from her.
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Amazon.com: 3.7 out of 5 stars  67 reviews
51 of 56 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Last Rituals: Icelandic Novel of Secret Symbols, Medieval Witchcraft Oct. 2 2007
By D. Merrimon Crawford - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
Last Rituals: Icelandic Novel of Secret Symbols, Medieval Witchcraft and Modern Murder by internationally acclaimed author Yrsa Sigurdardottir and translated into English by Bernard Scudder will thrill readers with the finely written mystery and more intimate look at a glimpse of Iceland as the background, a country that intrigues but often remains mysterious. The author combines an obscure part of history with dark psychological details while also creating a realistic and sometimes humorous backdrop in the characters investigating this unusual case.

Thora Gutmundsdottir, a divorced mother who started her own legal partnership receives a phone call from Germany from the Amelia Guntlieb who had been given her name by one of Thora's former professors. Amelia's son was murdered in Iceland and the family needs assistance. The Guntliebs do not feel the local police investigated their son's case thoroughly. Amelia proposes that Thora work with Matthew Reich, a man who spent 5 years with the Munich CID. Although Matthew has the investigative skills needed, he does not know the Icelandic language well enough to ask questions and mix with the locals well enough to get real answers. Certain shocking details of Harald's murder are just too mysterious, eerie and gruesome to believe the murder is connected to a drug deal gone bad. Does someone have a personal vendetta against Harald? After initial reservations, Thora accepts the case and Matthew hands over a dossier detailing many of the particulars of Harald's life. Do the details of his murder relate to his studies of history or to some dark hidden aspect of his personal life? Are the gruesome details a measure of the killer's rage or a clue to the identity of some mysterious group? What does the strange symbol mean? Harald had gone to Iceland to study Medieval history. In particular, his research compared Icelandic witchcraft with witch burnings, execution and torture in Medieval Germany. Whereas women were often the target of witch burnings in Germany, in Iceland, the majority of witches executed were men. Does this difference have any bearing on Harald's research in Iceland? As the investigation narrows, the two discover Harald began to develop strange practices while in Iceland. An investigation into Harald's personal life in Iceland as well as in Germany unearths more and more secrets. Thora and Matthew's investigation takes them through the history of Iceland in many forms and the author gives the reader a fascinating view of both historical and modern Iceland. The more clues they find, the more mysterious the murder appears and the two are no longer sure whom they can trust.

Yrsa Sigurdardottir creates the perfect balance between realistic characterization and a darker multi-faceted mystery that intrigues the reader as it unfolds. As the details of Thora's family life interfere with her investigation, the reader sees a glimpse of her as whole person ---one who cares for her children as only a devoted mother can but also as a person whose life has endowed her with a delightful sense of humor and a sense of compassion that underlies her investigation. The developing relationship between Thora and Matthew provides delightful humorous twists to accompany the terrifying secrets and relationships they uncover. The mystery itself grabs the reader's attention from the very beginning and heightens with each successive revelation of clues. Suspenseful twists and turns lead to a climax where all the pieces carefully prepared from the very beginning fall together and yet still surprise the reader in unexpected and unforgettable new ways.

Yrsa Sigurdardottir's novel will appeal a wide variety of readers with an interest in Iceland from those with a mere curiosity for this unique country all the way to those with a more thorough knowledge from travel or studies of Icelandic literature. The author interweaves well known aspects of her native land such as the Icelandic horses, lava fields and various landmarks with a humorous look at the pronunciation of the Icelandic language and local driving customs into the plot and interchanges of the characters themselves. Those curious for a closer more in depth look at Iceland will appreciate the author's look at the effects of a small population, the history of Icelandic law and religion and the results of globalization on the daily life of local residents. At all times, the author integrates these details so closely into characters and the structure of the novel so that the pace of the mystery unfolds fluidly with a touch of humor and heightening of the mystery.

Scholars quite familiar with Medieval Norse manuscript history and literature will be thrilled to discover the realism in Yrsa Sigurdardottir's portrayal of the intricacies of Icelandic manuscript history. The author details this history through Thora's investigations of Harald's actions and relationships so readers unfamiliar with this aspect of Icelandic history easily follow the unfolding mystery. The author creates the best of two worlds ---- the reader follows a realistic portrayal of Iceland's unique place in Medieval history and literature without being weighed down by a pedantic academic treatise but her attention to precision makes Last Rituals a more intriguing read than some of the missing codex, manuscript, symbol novels in current vogue. Yrsa Sigurdardottir's careful attention to detail and its seamless integration into the very heart of her writing style make Last Rituals one of the best recent novels in the genre.
15 of 15 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars More like 4 1/2 stars.... March 23 2008
By Deborah Wiley - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
Harald Guntlieb has been brutally murdered and a friend of his is accused of the crime. The family isn't satisifed with the investigation, however, and requests the services of Thora Gudmundsdottir, a local attorney. Matthew Reich is already working on the investigation but needs help navigating through the country as Iceland is completely foreign to him. Their investigation is going to take them along a bizarre and twisted path, a path into the history of Iceland's involvement in witchcraft, sorcery, and even torture.

The depth of history on Iceland and its association with witchcraft is simply fascinating. I'm unfamiliar with any of the history but the author presents it in an interesting manner. The details are often gory and the murder, along with the physical appearance of Harald prior to his death, is rather gruesome. Please be forewarned that this is an intense, even bizarre story at times. That is not to say that it isn't good, as it definitely is!

Thora is an intriguing character. The story focuses primarily on the investigation, but the glimpses into her personal life offer a portrait of a loving and caring mother. The contrast between the two mothers, Thora and Amelia Guntlieb, is startling. Thora's interactions with her son provide a much needed positive note to counterbalance the darkness that is portrayed in LAST RITUALS. I loved the way Yrsa Sigurdardottir made some very subtle but important statements about family, particularly in the midst of dysfunction.

LAST RITUALS is clearly not a tale that will appeal to all. The grisly details alone will discourage some readers. The style is very unique as this book has more the feel of literature than your typical thriller. LAST RITUALS is an intense read, but one easily worth reading.

COURTESY OF CK2S KWIPS AND KRITIQUES
22 of 24 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars An interesting debut Jan. 8 2008
By Bookphile - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
I read a glowing review of this book that inspired me to pick it up. While I think the review was rather too effusive, this was an interesting first book and I think the author has the potential to develop into something really special, given time and experience. Still, because this is a translation, it is difficult to know if some of the more awkward prose is due to the writing itself or if it's due to the translation. Either way, the book could do with some more polish.

The biggest minus of the book, in my opinion, is that Thora's personal life isn't really developed enough to be in the book. I felt oddly off balance whenever reading these details because they seemed sometimes like the author threw them in there and then didn't really go anywhere with them. Thora seemed much to casual about some of the events in her life--especially when it comes to the humongous bomb that her 15-year-old son drops on her. I have a hard time believing any mother could be as sanguine as Thora is, distracted by the case or not.

The real strength of the book, then, is in the mystery. I read a lot of mystery novels but I've never read one that's taken a foray into this particular territory and so it made for a nice change of pace. The murder victim's interest in witchcraft made for some interesting cultural lessons not only about Iceland but also about Europe in the 16th and 17th centuries. The author also did a nice job making the victim's family mysterious and revealing a surprising plot twist at the end. Harald is anything but a sympathetic character and while I've read mystery novels where the victim isn't the nicest person in the world, Harald's personality added an interesting twist.

The book seems very well researched, though I'm certainly no scholar of history. It is very detailed and well plotted and this is what makes me think that with some work and some polish, this author has the potential to become a fine writer.
13 of 14 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Excellent start to a new series Dec 14 2007
By Armchair Interviews - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
Reviewed by Kathy Perschmann

Subtitled: An Icelandic Novel of Secret Symbols, Medieval Witchcraft, and Modern Murder

Rekyavik lawyer Thóra Gudmundsdottir gets a very unusual request. A German student, Harald Guntlieb, has been found murdered in the History Department building at the University-with some gruesome details. Even though a young man has been arrested, the family back in Germany wants help in making sure the investigation has been thorough, and that the police have the right man.

The Guntlieb family is wealthy, and they send a representative who works for them often, a German ex-policeman, Matthew Reich, He brings some documents to help Thóra, and will assist in the research. Against her better judgment, Thóra takes on the case-she is a single mother with two children and needs the money.

Some details about the grisly murder suggest sorcery. Harald was interested in witchcraft, and searching for a medieval manuscript written by a member of the Catholic Church who was a fanatic about seeking out witches, torturing and killing them. Harald seems to be more on a hunt for the manuscript than working on his thesis. Thóra and Mathew follow his steps, with the grudging help of Harald's friends Halldor, a medical student, and Marta, Briet, Brjann. And Andri. Hugi, who is accused of the murder, is resigned to his fate, but the circumstantial evidence against him is slowly chipped away by Thóra's investigation.

I was surprised by the outcome of the inquiry, and by the reasons for the mutilation of the corpse. The plot twists and turns in the historical search-and the unraveling of the motives for the murder are spellbinding. The setting is dark and dour, with Iceland's cold, snow, and treeless landscape depicted in detail. Thóra and her relationship with her children, co-workers, and with Mathew, is a delight.

Armchair Interviews says: Fortunately for mystery lovers, this is the first of a series.
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A Unique Thriller Dec 20 2007
By Daniel W. Hays - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
Those looking for something quite unusual and new by way of a mystery or thriller now have "Last Rituals."<
Its author is an Icelandic Civil Engineer who has also written five children's novels. Now, she has turned her hand to mystery and produced one of the best mystery/thrillers in many years, in any language.<
Ably rendered into English by Bernard Scudder, "Last Rituals" is the story of a struggling attorney who agrees to help investigate the murder of a German student in Reykjavik. There are a great many complications. The police already have a suspect, but the victim's parents don't believe he did it. Thora Gudmundsdottir must also work with a retired German policeman sent to Iceland to aid in the investigation.<
What they find is far from simple, including the fact that the student was in search of the original manuscript of the legendary "Malleus Maleficarum," the Medieval "Witch's Hammer." He also, they find, was involved with a black magic cult. Eventually, they must journey deep into the dark history of Iceland and into some of the darkest corners of the modern world.<
"Last Rituals" is wonderfully paced, rich in characterization, superior in story. It is such a satisfying book that readers will insist the next book by Sigurdardottir appear like magic!
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