Friday, 18 September 2015

Book Review - 'Last Rituals', by Yrsa Sigurdardottir

Scandinavian crime fiction has earned a well-deserved reputation over the years - with 'Nordic noir', as the style is commonly called, often being praised for its devotion to realism and moral complexity. Last Rituals, the first crime novel from an author better known for children's fiction before its publication, is a novel clearly intended to earn its author a place among the best known writers of this particular genre.

The body of a young man is found horribly disfigured - with his eyes removed, and a strange symbol carved into his skin. The young man, Harald Guntlieb, is a German student of history with a deep interest in black magic and occult. Given the state of his body when he is discovered, it seems fairly clear that there must be some connection between his chosen field of study and his murder - though, what that connection could be remains largely unclear. Of course, it also doesn't help that the police believe that they already have the most likely culprit in custody - a local drug dealer associate of Harald's who, according to witnesses, was the last person to see him alive. Believing that the case is already closed, the police aren't too eager to dig into any possible connections buried within Harald's chosen field of study.

The problem, though, is that Harald's family aren't nearly as convinced - for the simple reason that Harald's missing eyes weren't found in the primary suspects possession. For them, there is a definite need to dig into these potential connections in order to make sure that the right person is held responsible for the brutal murder of their son.

For reasons that I'm still not entirely clear on, Harald's mother decides to hire a lawyer, Thóra Gudmunsdottir, to help conduct a new investigation and, hopefully, uncover the identity of the true murderer. Being a divorced single mother employed at a small, and clearly struggling, law firm, the promise of a significant amount of money on offer clearly appeals to Thóra - so, she agrees to take the job. Of course, Thóra isn't working alone - she soon finds herself paired with Matthew Reich, a German ex-police officer who now works for the Guntlieb family. Throughout their investigation, the pair will be required to immerse themselves in the occasionally disturbing subject matter of Harald's studies as they try to determined what possibly relevance any of it could hold to his brutal murder.

It's fascinating subject matter, certainly. But, unfortunately, while things get off to a pretty great start with the discovery of Harald's body, it all starts to drag a little after that. So much of Thóra and Matthew's investigative efforts, as they attempt to follow in Harald's footsteps, are made up of a series of expository conversations with people connected to Harald. Sure, this might be a slightly more realistic take on how a murder investigation would play out than what you sometimes get from this sort of story - but, it doesn't always make for compelling reading.

At random points throughout Last Rituals, too, the focus would suddenly shift to other characters who were either directly, or indirectly, involved in the matter of Harald's violent death. For the most part, these little diversions from the main plot were fine - and, they often served to establish a broader context for the murder. The shifts to Harald's small circle of friends, though, were less successful - with them often engaging in frustratingly vague conversations that hinted at the fact that they knew what really happened to their friend, while stubbornly refusing to reveal what that might be to the reader. This wouldn't be so bad, if not for the fact that they tip-toed around the issue even when they were speaking to each other - so, it came across as a bit contrived.

Thóra and Matthew are each likable enough, at least - though, admittedly, Thóra did make a better impression, overall. I would have to put this down to the simple fact that the novel gives us more opportunities to get to know her. Matthew, on the other hand, seemed to be kept frustratingly vague. The novel's occasional shift into Thóra's family life, and particularly a sub-plot involving her teenage son and an accidental pregnancy, may have felt a little out of place, but it also did a good job of humanising Thóra for the reader - which is something that we never really got with Matthew. While Thóra quickly comes to feel like a fully rounded character, Matthew often doesn't seem to have much else to do beyond display a sense of smugness in his dealings with the people around him - particularly Thóra, herself.

The main issue I had with the two, though, was in the way that they interacted with each other. There was just something about the instances of 'witty' banter that they exchanged throughout the course of the novel which struck me as awkward, and a little unnatural. I was left to assume that, perhaps, the translation simply didn't do the original any favours on this point - but, of course, I have no way of knowing for certain (and, it might be very unfair of me to cast blame at the translator). Regardless of the reason, though, the end result is that I simply wasn't convinced by any suggestion of any sort of relationship developing between the two.

But, all that being said, the central mystery still manages to be compelling enough to carry the reader through to the end (though, I admit, it was a bit of a struggle, at times). Also, the various discussions on the history of witchcraft and black magic in Iceland are often genuinely fascinating, in their own right - even if they don't really do the novel's already prevalent pacing issues any favours.

Last Rituals, unfortunately, probably isn't going to make anyone's list of the best examples of Nordic noir - but, it still gets enough right to be worth the time of anyone with an interesting in this style of story-telling. Most important, though, as the first in a series of crime novels, Last Rituals successfully manages the difficult task of creating a central protagonist who readers can relate to, and who readers may be willing to follow into later adventures in follow-up works.

No comments:

Post a Comment