The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, by Stieg Larsson

MacLehose Press (2008), Paperback, 532 pages

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Yes, this book has been out for years, it has had tremendous impact and been reviewed thousands of times, literally. It kick-started a whole new genre of Scandinavian crime fiction, and I am coming to the party very late. I make no apologies for that. I read books in my own time, and not at the behest of the market. In fact I may not have read this at all but for the fact that laid up recovering from surgery I was desperate to find things to watch on TV and happened to come across the movie (the Swedish original, of course, not the American atrocity). having watched the movie, and enjoyed it, I was of course compelled to discover and read the book. It is different from what I expected. From previous experience I had a particular sense of Scandinavian crime fiction as being complex, dark, and layered in corruption. In essence what I got was fairly standard serial killer mystery, interesting, certainly and well-written, but to be honest I had expected more from a book that garnered such attention. However, the book does have a hook, a point of difference that makes it worthwhile, and makes the rest of the series worth anticipating. That hook is not protagonist Mikael Blomkvist, whom I found rather irritating. To be honest, he’s a rather wussy character, prone to wallow in his own troubles, and his casual acceptance that all women should fall into bed with him, and they usually do, as a matter of course, was really, really tacky, IMHO. No, the hook is co-protagonist Lisbeth Salander, who is one of the most amazing heroines I have ever encountered in literature. To be honest, her part in this book is basically unnecessary to the plot, and it is really an audition and and an introduction for her before her much more substantial roles in the subsequent books of the trilogy. But what an introduction! Fierce, unsociable, determined, hateful, vengeful, vulnerable, endearing, all at once, she is simply a mesmerizing character, and the outstanding feature of this book. She makes it, and the subsequent books, worth reading. For that reason, and that reason alone, I recommend this book. You may enjoy the story, you may even like Blomkvist, but I’m telling you, you will love Lisbeth, and its she that will keep you coming back for more.

8/10

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The Kelly Gang Unmasked

The Kelly Gang Unmasked, by Ian MacFarlane

Oxford University Press (2014), Paperback, 248 pages

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While there has been plenty of Kelly revisionism in the past few years, with authors lining up to poke holes in the Kelly mythos, this is far and away the most overtly anti-Kelly book I have ever come across. The author has literally not one good thing to say about Ned Kelly, neither in a historical or a personal sense. Less a re-telling of the Kelly story than a selection of particular aspects freshly re-examined in the light of new evidence discovered in Victoria’s archives, MacFarlane uses his admirably exhaustive research to paint Kelly in the blackest light possible, and conversely to rehabilitate the reputation of the Victorian police, usually depicted as the villains of the piece. After reading a few pages, I became convinced that MacFarlane had to be connected in some way with the Victoria police. Apparently he is not, but as you can imagine, the Victoria Police, Kelly’s unyielding foes in life, and not budging an inch in their condemnation of him in the 130 years since, are delighted with this book, as you can judge from this fawning review in the Victorian Police Association journal (http://www.tpav.org.au/_documents/Communications/Book%20Reviews/24e22c04-1dcd-4b1f-ba44-f09af67408ab/The_Kelly_Gang_Unmasked_Review_Nov_2012.pdf ) From my own perspective, I found MacFarlane’s rhetoric over the top for an otherwise worthwhile and fascinating book which does expose new facts about the case. I have never disputed that Kelly was in fact a career criminal and a multiple murderer, and that the Kelly legend has been overblown. On the other hand, I also recognise that Kelly was an articulate individual with tremendous charisma and powers of leadership, and that given a different start in life, could have been an outstanding individual in any one of a number of theatres of life, including politics, the worker’s movement, or the military to name a few. MacFarlane, on the other hand, concedes nothing to Kelly whatsoever, and I find that an unconscionable failure in a work of history. For all that, I do recommend this book to anyone interested in Australian history, and the Kelly story in particular, as it does present a  fresh perspective on certain parts, and the discovery of new evidence in such a familiar story is always welcome. You can take or leave MacFarlane’s partisan rhetoric as you wish, difficult as it is to ignore. But a worthwhile read, certainly.

7.5/10

 

The Feud

feudThe Feud: The Hatfields and McCoys: The True Story

Back Bay (2014), Paperback, 464 pages

Genuinely exciting, fast-moving, but also sad and tragic story of two rival clans who battled each other across the Tug Fork River between Kentucky and West Virginia for 3 decades of the late 19th century. If you can make sense of the torrent of names, many of them very similar, that will be hurled at you as you wade through the family history of the much intermarried clans, you will find this an enthralling read. The feud, which began with the murder of a Union sympathiser after the Civil War, but was really precipitated a decade later by, of all things, the disputed ownership of a pig, ostensibly involved the Hatfield family, based in West Virginia and led by Anderson “Devil Anse” Hatfield, and the McCoys, based in Kentucky and led by Randolph “Ole Ran’l” McCoy, was much more complex than a simple dispute between families. It involved concepts of loyalty, honour and betrayal, that led people to forgo family ties in order to take one side or the other, or indeed, try to stop the feud altogether. King has taken a complicated story and made a fast-paced, exciting read. Despite the tangled family trees and webs of intrigue and mistrust, the story moves at a breakneck pace, covering three decades of violence without mssing a beat. King does not, however, gloss over the genuine tragedy of this private civil war. At least 20 people, many of them innocent, died in the course of the feud, and King captures the loss and the grief of the bereaved families. He also captures the wider implications of this private war for the US at large, with two states, Kentucky and West Virginia, being drawn almost to the point of war themselves over the dispute, and the interest of the world outside piqued, with journalists from the big cities risking their lives in order to penetrate the clan strongholds in search of a scoop. This is an enthralling piece of writing, sad, but gripping which will reward the reader very richly indeed.

9/10