Fresh Blood

Name: Yrsa Sigurdardottir

Title of Book: Last Rituals

'An absorbing good read.'

In Iceland, a young German post-graduate student is found murdered at his university. The student had been studying the character of mediaeval witchcraft in Iceland where it was predominantly men who were put to death for the crime. The local police consider the case closed and have who they believe to be a convincing suspect in custody.

However, the student’s wealthy family back in Germany refuse to believe the official version of events and contact Reykjavik lawyer Thora Gutmundsdottir to find out what really happened. To assist Thora’s quest the family’s head of security, Matthew Reich, is sent out to Iceland. Although initially suspicious of one another they are soon drawn into a case where the dead student’s obsessions with the occult seem to be key to the mystery. Meanwhile Thora struggles to reconcile the family’s struggle for the truth with their apparent coldness towards their son when he was alive…

Icelandic crime fiction is enjoying critical acclaim at the moment and Yrsa Sigurdardottir is a worthy addition to the canon of writers. The mystery of the young student’s death is unravelled methodically, a style of writing that reflects the lawyer’s painstaking approach to the investigation. The student’s fascination with occult practices is dealt with unflinchingly and without censure although the impact of the victim’s actions on his group of friends soon becomes apparent.

The relationship between Thora and Matthew, although initially abrasive, seems to move towards mutual attraction without any explanation as to how this has come about. However, the conclusion of the novel leaves their future relationship uncertain - adding a note of realism to their liaison.

The novel is very good at describing Thora’s disruptive home life, which places the bizarre murder events within a realistic domestic framework. An absorbing good read.

Reviewed by: S.W.

CrimeSquad Rating

Fresh Blood Questionnaire

1) As it slowly evolves and increases in popularity, crime fiction seems to be organically sub-dividing into a number of widely diverse categories. Which genre (or sub-genre, even…) of crime novel would you say you write in?
In Iceland crime novels are relatively new so we have not evolved enough to have genres, much less sub-genres. As a result I am unfortunately not familiar with the names or types of these genres and don’t dare venture a shot in the dark for fear of making an utter fool of myself.
2) What type of crime novels do you like to read? Do you prefer series or standalone?
I usually prefer crime novels that are a series and have a recurring character. This is probably because you don’t have to spend many pages getting familiar with the protagonist and the crime and the story can develop at a better pace. Further to this I also like novels that are a bit gruesome, not wallowing in disgust or anything like that but spiced with things you do not want to happen in your own life.
3) How much did you know about the history of Icelandic witchcraft before starting your book?
Not very much but enough to pass my history exam the year it was on the curriculum. I had to do a lot of research to get more familiar with it and that was not so hard from the Icelandic side of it. It was a bit harder when it came to the witch-hunts in the rest of Europe and I ended up buying a massive amount of books on Amazon with subjects like witchcraft, witch-hunts, executions, torture and so on. Still now, three years later I get mails from Amazon noting: Dear valued customer, here is something you might like… followed by a miserable title such as Noted Hangmen or The Pol Pot Diaries.
4) Did you find it difficult to write about some of the occult practices that you detail in the book?
No not at all, I found much of the reading I had to do appalling, especially with regards to the treatment of children as well as the torture parts. How anyone can be a torturer is beyond me.
5) Will Thora Gutmundsdottir and Matthew Reich make a re-appearance in future novels?
Yes, there are 3 books in print in Iceland with this duo, although Matthew is on a break in the third one. It is very hard to write about events in Iceland with a main character that cannot speak the language. Matthew is however thinking about getting a job in one of the Icelandic banks and if he wants to show up for number four he must go through gruelling language courses. I think he is currently enrolled in such a course so he will probably be back in book 4.
6) Has the success of the novel outside of your native Iceland been a surprise?
Absolutely, it did however begin to generate some buzz while I was writing it and that was a bit uncomfortable in a way as I began to worry about promoting Icelandic tourism and so on. Luckily I managed to steer clear of any such nonsense and just kept writing the story as I had originally intended it to be written.
7) Without giving away the plot, which book - yours or by another author - included your favourite plot twist of all time?
I would say Crooked House by Agatha Christie because of the surprising identity of the murderer. It was perhaps not so much a plot twist but a surprise ending and as I was only a teenager when I read it and just beginning to read crime, I was very, very impressed.
8) What is your favourite movie adaptation of a crime novel?
Presumed Innocent – usually I find the books better than the movie if I have read them.
9) Would you describe yourself as a crime fiction fan in general and, if so, which authors do you most admire and why?
I am a big fan and if I read a novel it is always crime. I like very much the works of Jonathan Kellerman, Ian Rankin, Minette Walters and Mark Billingham.
10) What is your favourite crime read of all time?
This is very difficult to answer as my memory is not the best when it comes to such things. However, I loved Silence of the Lambs when it came out, even more than I hated Hannibal some years later, so on average Thomas Harris is still in the plus side of the credit ledger where I am concerned.