THE GRAVE TATTOO is a standalone book from the prolific and well-known author of, amongst many others, The Wire In The Blood series.
When a tattooed, 200-year-old body is uncovered in the peat bogs of the Lake District, local girl turned Wordsworth Scholar Jane Gresham is instantly reminded of a local legend about Fletcher Christian, the man who led the mutiny on the Bounty, said to have returned surreptitiously to England from Pitcairn Island. Returning to her childhood home she is on the trail of a connection between the Wordsworth and Christian families and is intrigued by the meaning behind a letter which she discovers in the archives from Wordsworth's family home. Back in London, on the council estate where Jane lives, a local teenager that Jane has befriended is dealing with a heap of problems of her own, and despite Jane's attempts to help her before she leaves, Tenille finds herself in big trouble. Despite being only 13, and having never travelled far from the council estate in her life, Tenille sets off to meet up with Jane.
The police are looking for Tenille and to add to Jane's problems, her ex-boyfriend, now Historical Document Dealer, is stalking Jane through the Lake District trying to get a lead on the important and valuable documents from Wordsworth that everyone believes exist.
The chapters of the book are interspersed with extracts from Christian's secret diary that all appear to be confirming firstly the theories about who the body is, and the existence of documents or memoirs written by Wordsworth about the mutiny. There are friendships and family relationships that drive Jane and her reactions to the people around her. No sooner have Jane and her coterie of supporters devised a theory about where these memoirs could possibly have gone, then elderly people, interviewed by Jane, start dying.
THE GRAVE TATTOO is quite a change in direction for McDermid, especially for those used to her more confrontational and frequently gory well-known novels. This is more of a plot combined with character study that doesn't pay particular attention to one component over the other. The characterisations were, in the main, reasonably detailed and solid, although some of the motivations for actions were tenuous. The setting was excellent with a great feeling for the Lake Districts and the landscape. The suspects were fairly introduced to the reader, although they were a few over obvious attempts at portraying sinister actions which just didn't quite seem to work, plus it seemed that some of the supporting character roles were too detailed in some places and too sketchy in others.
THE GRAVE TATTOO has a very unexpected setting and environment for a crime fiction book than much of the standard offering these days. In attempting to provide a grand and sweeping theory with a grand and sweeping story it did seem to fall a little flat on occasion.