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Not long after a German student is found brutally murdered in Reykjavik's university, a suspect is arrested. Soon afterwards, lawyer Thora Gudmundsdottir receives a phone call from Matthew Reich, a German acting on behalf of the dead student's family; they don't believe that the drug dealer charged with Harald's murder is the killer and they'd like Thora, who has been recommended to them because she studied in Germany, to help with a private investigation into Harald's death. It soon becomes apparent that Harald led a less than conventional lifestyle; his post mortem reveals that he underwent several dramatic procedures to change his appearance, and the valuable pieces of art on the walls of his flat point to a morbid fascination with a thoroughly unpleasant subject.
Last Rituals is Icelandic author Yrsa Sigurdardottir's first adult novel, having previously published several books for children. I picked up the book mainly because I was looking for new Scandinavian and northern European crime fiction writers and because the Icelandic setting particularly appealed to me. The subject matter appealed to me much less; there's a great deal of Icelandic history, mostly covering the medieval period and the novel does get bogged down in this detail from time to time without really being essential to the plot.
As a piece of crime fiction it's not bad; there are plenty of leads and the clues are there for armchair detectives to get the little grey cells working. It's not up there with the likes of compatriot Arnaldur Indridason, or Swedish writer Henning Mankell, but it's competent enough and, if you can get past the fog of unnecessary medieval historical detail, it's highly readable.
Thora is a thirty something divorcee who juggles looking after her two children with a demanding job. I wasn't entirely convinced by the character; her light-hearted attitude did little to paint her as an earnest lawyer although her humorous side does lighten a dark tale. Perhaps because she's a lawyer and not a dedicated solver of crimes, it felt as if Sigurardottir had deliberately tried to make Thora more personable, perhaps even more human, than female leads in other crime fiction. Harald's friends, a group of black-clad, pierced misfits were much more convincing. Their attitudes towards authority was wholly convincing but the way they were so insular, depending on each other, yet at the same time mistrustful of each other, reminded me a lot of the students in Donna Tartt's "The Secret History".
Last Rituals appears to have been written to appeal to the international market with visits to well know tourist sites and snippets about popular culture and Icelandic lifestyle and society. Fortunately these details were woven neatly into the story and didn't seem out of place. With the potential romance and the domestic goings on the novel seems more aimed at female readers; unfortunately, however, I don't believe that Thora is a sufficiently engaging character and I can't see readers rushing to read every installment in what looks likely to become a series. In this novel the murder case is definitely more compelling than the persons investigating it. On the basis of the quality of the plot I'll probably look out for the next episode but I'm not wholly convinced.