Monday, August 31, 2009

Those fingers in my hair / That sly come-hither stare ...

... it's witchcraft, and it figures prominently in Yrsa Sigurðardóttir's 2007 crime debut, Last Rituals.

A student is found slain in his Reykjavík university department, his body mutilated in ways that suggest occult rituals (but also outré and dangerous sexual practices). The student has been preparing a dissertation on the comparative history of witch hunts. Early investigation of his death coincides with the disappearance of a historic letter from one sixteenth-century ecclesiastic to another that may deal with witchcraft as well.

I suspect from the novel's early chapters that I will learn something about witchcraft, its history and its reception in Iceland. But I'll also keep in mind other Nordic crime novels from the late 1990s onward in which satanic or other occult practices (or fear thereof) lie at the heart of murders. I wrote about this in 2007 in a discussion of Åsa Larsson's Sun Storm (published as The Savage Altar in the UK). Helene Tursten's The Glass Devil and Jo Nesbø's The Devil's Star would also make the list.

While I go read more of Last Rituals, I'll throw the question open to readers, especially those from the Nordic countries: Have satanism and witchcraft been on people's minds in Sweden, Norway, Iceland, Denmark and Finland in the past ten years? If so, why? And what other crime novels have taken up the subject?

Last Rituals has had its mischievous moments, too. One early highlight is an unexpectedly lighthearted exchange over autopsy photographs that includes the line "Fancy a pizza?"
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(Yrsa Sigurðardóttir will be a member of my crime fiction and translation panel at Bouchercon 2009 along with Steven T. Murray, Tiina Nunnally and Robert Pépin.)

© Peter Rozovsky 2009

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26 Comments:

Anonymous Joe Barone said...

I will be interested in reading your comments when you have finished the book.

August 31, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Thanks. I'm not quite halfway through, but I've already noticed one difference between Last Rituals and the other books that I mentioned. The chief interest in those books, as far as such things were concerned, lay in how ready a Swedish or Norwegian public was ready to blame murders on satanists -- a sociological phenomenon, in other words. This book is more interested in the history of witchcraft and magic. No surprise there, since the murder victim had been studying those areas as a graduate student.

August 31, 2009  
Blogger adrian mckinty said...

I'm proud to say that the last Witch Trial in Ireland was held in my home town of Carrickfergus in 1711 when some poor old dear was put in the stocks. Well done Carrick!

August 31, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

By odd coincidence, I believe Iceland's current villains dabbled in stocks as well. I first met Yrsa at the last Bouchercon, right after Iceland's banking system crashed. That was a big topic of discussion.

August 31, 2009  
Blogger adrian mckinty said...

Also nice pic of a crow on the cover. I just read a great book about crows called Crow Planet - highly recommended if you're interested in the smartest, most curious and most sinister of our feathered friends.

August 31, 2009  
Blogger R. T. said...

I interviewed Arnuldur Indridason a couple of years ago, and--I'm paraphrasing from memory here--he explained Icelanders' fascination with crime novels by saying that crime had not been a large problem in that country but the late 20th century and early 21st century was bringing about cultural changes that were catalysts for readers' increased interest in reading about crime in fiction. This can, as I also recall from my conversation, be attributed to Iceland's increased access to and accessibility from the rest of the world. Now, as for the darker aspects of your question, that subject never came up (and--if my memory serves correctly--does not appear in any significant way in Indridason's novels though someone can correct me on that one if my memory is faulty).

August 31, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Adrian, that may be a crow's relative, the raven. That cover is not of my edition, but I liked it better than my cover. My edition has some nice Icleandic script, but it might not have reproduced well.

August 31, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

R.T.: Arnaldur said at Bouchercon that one problem for Icelandic crime writers is that the country has practically no crime. He also said that rapid industrialization after World War II led to radical changes in Icelandic society, presumably the ones he meant when he spoke with you.

I don't think the occult plays into his fiction, but Iceland's isolation sure does. I think his protagonist even prefers to keep his blinds down and his curtains drawn.

August 31, 2009  
Blogger R. T. said...

I lived in Iceland for about 16 months, but was so preoccupied with NATO duties that I did not take full advantage of opportunities to "infiltrate" and enjoy Icelandic society and culture. Reading Indridason's novels, though, is a bit like a belated, vicarious excursion into the down-and-dirty parts of Iceland. As for the "dark side" in Iceland, I can only speculate that any society that goes through such long, dark (really dark) winters must have plenty of stories about things that go bump in the night. Unfortunately, I have no stories to share.

August 31, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

When were you there? I’ve probably shown this before, but here are Arnaldur and me at Bouchercon. Nice guy – we talked a bit about the sagas, but not about the current state of his country, about which I don’t know much. I think his writing takes wonderful advantage of its setting.

August 31, 2009  
Blogger adrian mckinty said...

Ravens do get a mention in the book, they may be the smartest of the crows and thats saying something. Anyway a little OT.

I once went to an open air hot springs in Iceland (not the Blue Lagoon just a local one) - it was funny to see this hairy dark chunky guy in among these blonde weird skinny elven types. It was like when the Dwarves rested up with Master Elrond in The Hobbit.

August 31, 2009  
Blogger R. T. said...

Peter, I was in Iceland on behalf of the U.S. government (military) in 1980-81. We were not particularly popular with some Icelanders, though the Cold War mission legitimized our presence in the eyes of the Icelandic government and NATO.

August 31, 2009  
Blogger Kiwicraig said...

Concern about satanism/witchcraft was pretty widespread throughout many areas of the world in the 1980s and early 1990s... the "satanic panics" and "satanic child abuse" cases in particular. e.g. Peter Ellis case in NZ, McMartin case in North America, and plenty of others that showed remarkable similarities despite being 1000s of miles apart. Also the West Memphis 3 case in the States.

So it's definitely something that has been around... one of the crime novels I read earlier this year, Gillian Flynn's DARK PLACES, also touches on it...

August 31, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Adrian, I think I remember your having mentioned that. None of the three Icelanders I've met has blond hair, and I suspect that Stieg Larsson went out of his way in The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo to let readers know not all Swedes are Anita Ekberg in the hair department.

August 31, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

R.T., you may well remember, then, that the Cold War figures in Arnaldur's novel The Draining Lake.

August 31, 2009  
Blogger R. T. said...

Indeed! I could say that THE DRAINING LAKE is my favorite Indridason, but that would be a small distortion since I admire each of his novels and would be hard pressed to really choose "the best." (Tidbit: After VOICES, I can never really think of a department store Santa Claus without thinking of the opening scene in the novel!)

August 31, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Thanks, Craig. Granted that I don't read that much American crime fiction, I still don't remember the theme turning up that much in crime fiction from outside the Nordic countries. Child abuse, yes. Satanism and the fear of satanism, no.

What's distinctive about the three novels I cited is less satanism than the fear of it, the portrayal of a society willing to blame satanists for crimes, and of criminals willing to capitalize on the willingness. I'm not sure yet whether that will figure in Last Rituals

August 31, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

That's quite a teaser, R.T. I've read just two of Arnaldur's novels, but I will be reading more. His next book to be published in English has a very cool title, and I don't mean that just literally. It's called Hypothermia.

August 31, 2009  
Blogger Jm Diaz said...

This makes wish I could figure out that 36 hour day, thing!!

September 01, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

You could spend your summers in Iceland, where the days are exceedingly long, and spend all those extra daylight hours reading.

September 01, 2009  
Blogger Juri said...

Peter: there's been some satanism and ritual murders in Finland - sadly. I can think of at least two killings with people being hacked to pieces and even being eaten, but I can't remember any crime novel out of those events. But then again, I don't read much Finnish crime fiction.

Witchcraft played an important part in Mika Waltari's novels and plays, and one of the films made from his plays, Noita palaa elämään, was also shown in the US, I think it was called Witch! I'm not sure, but you might want to check that up. Then there are other historical novelists tackling the same theme, but I don't remember any examples right now - the books wouldn't be in English, no matter what. I think Kaari Utrio and Anneli Kanto have written about witchcraft in their novels.

September 02, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Thanks for the Witch! tip.

Such ritual killings probably happen in many places. Who knows if a) they happen with disproportionate frequency in the Nordic countries, b) if Nordic crime writers are disproportionately interested in such killings, and c) if the Nordic crime novels available in English deal disproportionately with the subject.

September 02, 2009  
Anonymous BellBookCandleSupply said...

Many fear witchcraft and think of it as an evil ritual. Actually, those are only portrayed in movies and some fantasy books. Witchcraft is basically a religion that pays high respect to Mother Nature. It is important to have at least some information about witchcraft to understand more their practice.
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September 05, 2009  
Blogger R. T. said...

BBCS: I think you have a formidable challenge if you wish to convince a significant number of people that witchcraft is a benign religion that honors Mother Nature. Yes, fiction is filled with examples of witchcraft, but very few are positive images, which suggests some sort of cultural (and even empirically supported) foundation for the predominantly less-than-benign perspective. In any event, I suspect that Detectives Without Borders is not the appropriate forum for your kind of argument. On the other hand, students in my composition and rhetoric class are engaging in a blog experiment (Religion in the 21st Century), and I invite you to give your best reasoned argument your best shot in that arena. However, I must also caution that the aforementioned arena is intended as a carefully considered exchange of ideas (through rhetoric and argumentation) rather than any overt or covert promotion of commercial enterprises.

September 05, 2009  
Blogger R. T. said...

CORRECTION: Of course, I had meant to say "Detectives Beyond Borders." My apologies, Peter.

September 05, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

CORRECTION: Of course, I had meant to say "Detectives Beyond Borders." My apologies, Peter.

Don't worry, R.T. People make that small error all the time.

September 05, 2009  

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