LAST RITUALS is an 'academic mystery': that is, the crime takes place in a university department (a student is murdered), and the solution depends on the uncovering and understanding of the victim's research, as well as of the broader mores, religion and witchcraft in medieval Europe. Yet the book is by no means heavy-going; the opposite in fact. LAST RITUALS is an assured novel, ably translated by the late Bernard Scudder. I recommend it very highly.
When the book opens, history student Harald Guntlieb is found dead in a small room at the university. He seems to have been strangled, but there are one or two other unpleasant details about the state of the body that force the unsympathetically portrayed police to call the death a murder. They rapidly arrest Halldor, a fellow-student who works part-time at the hospital morgue.
Harald comes from a fabulously wealthy German family, who are not satisfied that Halldor is the killer. Their lawyer, Matthew, begins to investigate on their behalf, but cannot progress very far because he doesn't speak Icelandic and does not know all the ins and outs of the country's legal and police procedures. He, together with the dead man's mother, therefore ask Thora, a local lawyer, to collaborate.
Thora, a divorced mother of a teenage boy and a younger girl, does a good job at running the family as well as holding down a partnership in a small firm. She jumps at the chance to work for the Guntliebs as a relief from her rather mundane professional cases, and her curiosity is immediately piqued by the documents on Harald's life and academic research which Matthew provides, giving her and the readers of the book a historical and biographical framework for what follows.
Thora is an attractive heroine: she's practical, capable and intelligent as well as having a dry sense of humour and an enquiring mind. Her domestic concerns are real enough, interesting and vivid, but without dominating the book. She's curious about everything: I particularly liked her encouragement of the pathologist who did Harald's autopsy to describe the molecular basis of muscle contraction. The description he provides is a little gem of knowledge. Similar examples are provided economically, accurately but not intrusively throughout the book – for example when a museum curator remarks in passing: "As a rule, people don't know anything: they can't even tell a revenant from a poltergeist."
LAST RITUALS is a straightforward telling of a macabre tale. Although the author does not mince words in describing some nasty events, she does not dwell unnecessarily on the horrors, but presents them in a pared-down style as part of the broader canvas of the narrative (similar in this respect to Helene Tursten's excellent Inspector Huss series). LAST RITUALS is far stronger and more effective by its refusal to dwell on the gruesome details of Harald's life and death, while at the same time having its spine-chilling moments – mostly in the sections where the (factual) activities of the medieval authorities' treatment of suspected witches and other poor souls are described.
The book is a classic detective story, in that Thora, with Matthew in support and being supportive, persists in questioning everyone as well as taking an academic interest in Harald's research, ultimately uncovering a treble mystery: that of the Guntlieb family's past; some ancient historical research that Harald and the rest of the university department were embarked upon; and the nature of the relationship between Harald and his alarming circle of student friends, who are clearly hiding some unappetising secrets.
As Thora and Matthew gradually put together all the threads of these interlocking stories, which all need to be understood before the circumstances of Harald's death and its immediate aftermath are clear, Thora herself has to cope with a domestic crisis in her own family involving her son. The 'confrontation' scene in this regard is absolutely brilliant: I laughed out loud, lost in admiration at the way Thora handles everyone involved, and the way the author juggles her cast. Thora is a great creation and I like her a lot. She and Matthew have a bantering, witty relationship that is nicely understated, reminiscent of Nick and Nora Charles. I hope I'll be encountering them again soon.