Monday, 16 May 2011

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. By Steig Larsson

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

Steig Larsson

Published in 2005 by MacLehose Press. Translated from the original Swedish by Reg Keeland

    This is part I of a trilogy. It is an unusual, and very readable, detective story, set in Sweden, and featuring a 'punk' heroine as one of the two main characters. Lisbeth Salander is the 'girl with the dragon tattoo', along  with a number of other tattoos and body piercings. She is also a computer hacker par excellence - she describes herself as one of the best in Sweden. She is a free lance investigator for a security company and as part of one of her assignments, connects up with the financial journalist Michael Blomkvist. The latter has been recently discredited for libeling an important financier, and is facing short jail term. In the meanwhile he is asked to write the history of the rich industrialist Vanger family. At least, this is the cover story. In reality he is inquiring into the 35 year old disappearance of the young niece of the patriarch. Together Salander and Blomkvist uncover the gruesome details that lead to the events of 1967, and later.
    The book has multiple layers. There is the story of the disappearance, underlying that is the story of Blomkvist and his duel with the financier whom he is supposed to have libelled, and underlying even that, and probably connecting the trilogy together is the story of Lisbeth Salander.  It is a nice read, though not exactly gripping. Also it does not have the integrity or honesty of, say, Raymond Chandler, to mention another writer of detective fiction.   


Sunday, 8 May 2011

The Crystal Cave. By Mary Stewart

The Crystal Cave

Mary Stewart

Published in 1970. I read an e-version downloaded from the Internet. No publisher's name is given and I suspect it is a pirated version.

This is Part I (of a total of four) of the Arthurian saga, narrated from Merlin's point of view. This book is all about Merlin and Arthur is not yet born. Merlin is a young boy in the court of the King of Wales. He is a bastard of the King's daughter and does not know who his father is. He soon realizes that he is not like other children, but has special intellectual (engineering, medical and magical) skills, which he further develops by training and practice. As 5th century England descends into chaos he escapes to France (Brittany) where he meets up with the Romano-British General Ambrosius, who is now in exile and who is raising an army to reconquer Britain and free it from the Saxon army of Hengist. Merlin discovers that Ambrosius is his father, comes under his protection and guidance, and after five years of further training, at the age of eighteen, precedes him back to England as a scout or a spy. Ambrosius soon lands with his army, and Merlin joins him. Ambrosius defeats Hengist, and becomes King of England but succumbs soon thereafter to disease or poison. His brother Uther Pendragon becomes King, and Merlin retires to his 'crystal cave'. He is summoned about a year later by Uther, who wants his help (and 'magic') to attain the Lady Ygraine, who is the wife of the Duke of Cornwall, Uther's most trusted and strongest ally. Merlin helps him in this adultery, because he realizes that the child born from this union will be Arthur, the one who brings peace to England. This book ends at this point.

Mary Stewart writes well, and the book is gripping and easy to read. The text is lyrical, but also contemporary. Obviously, as she admits, she has based her story on a very few historical 'facts' culled from various sources. The existence, though not the exact dates, of Ambrosius, Hengist, and later, perhaps, Arthur, is known.  But there is no evidence at all about Merlin, and certainly no evidence of any connection between these four (except, perhaps, the first two).     

Stewart tries to give 'scientific' explanations for some of the mysticisms attributed to Merlin. The 'crystal cave', in which Merlin is said to be trapped in his dotage, but also loves to lie in and meditate during his youth, is a small hidden hollow, with insides completely covered with quartz crystals, deep within another cave. (Such a structure is called a 'geode', as I learnt from my recent visit to the Carnegie Museum in Pittsburgh, although the one Merlin uses must be a much larger one than the samples I saw there). Merlin performs his fabled feats with the 'dancing stones', lifting and moving huge stone blocks to rebuild Stonehenge, by engineering skills, not magic. And so on. But this particular aspect does either add to or detract from the book. In conclusion, the book is highly readable, but light.