Reviewed By
Karen Chisholm

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The police are looking for Tenille and to add to Jane's problems, her ex-boyfriend, now Historical Document Dealer, is stalking Jane through the Lake District trying to get a lead on the important and valuable documents from Wordsworth that everyone believes exist.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. 

Year of Publication

It's a time-honoured tradition that the best crime writers begin to chafe at the constraints of their area of the genre and feel a need to stretch their literary muscles. With The Grave Tattoo, the estimable Val McDermid demonstrates that she, too, has felt the need of a change from her contemporary novels of crime and detection, and here takes on a truly ambitious panoply. Not that McDermid has been afraid to tackle unconventional subjects before--it's just that the scale of this novel is even more impressive. A corpse is discovered on a hill in the Lake District, adorned with bizarre tattoos. Wordsworth expert Jane Gresham finds herself distracted from her studies of the great Lakeland poet when another mystery surfaces, involving the Pitcairn Massacre and the events of the mutiny on the Bounty. Is it possible that Fletcher Christian, who led the rebellion against Captain Bligh, faked his own death and clandestinely returned to England? Jane makes a connection between the tattooed body and the tattoos on sailors who served in the South Seas--is this the body of Fletcher Christian? And Jane has another problem on her hands--a young girl who she has tried to help finds herself a murder suspect, and tracks her down to the Lakes. And as Jane closes in on a Wordsworth manuscript that may be a direct transcription of Fletcher Christian's confession, she finds herself with someone else on her trail--an ex-lover with similar designs on the precious document.

Review THE GRAVE TATTOO - Val McDermid
Karen Chisholm
Monday, October 1, 2007

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