The Grave Tattoo by Val McDermid

gravetattoo.jpgI knew nothing about Val McDermid before I received The Grave Tattoo in the mail. But it looked to be an interesting blend of literary historical mystery (plus, I liked the cover). And it was that. The problem was not so much with the conception as the execution.

Start with the plot. Chauncey Mabe at Pop Matters describes it this way:

Struggling Wordsworth scholar Jane Gresham is waiting tables in London to make ends meet when a tattooed “bog body” turns up in the Lake District where she grew up. The body, also dating from the 17th century, bears tattoos suggesting a sojourn in the South Seas, reviving a local legend that Fletcher Christian, leader of the Bounty mutineers, returned home from Pitcairn Island before he died.

Gresham has a theory that Christian shared his story with childhood chum Wordsworth, who turned it into an epic poem. Now she takes a break from her university teaching assistantship to go home and try to find the lost document in the family papers of longtime Lake District families. Almost as soon as she gets home, people start dying under suspicious circumstances.

Meanwhile, Tenille, a 13-year-old from the tough London neighborhood where Gresham rents a bed-sit, runs afoul of police after her aunt’s troublesome boyfriend is murdered. Beguiled by Tenille’s love of poetry, Gresham befriended the girl, who now follows her to the country and becomes involved in hiding from police and helping search for the lost manuscript

Others searching for the valuable document include Gresham’s charming, greedy ex-boyfriend, while River Wilde, a beautiful and ambitious young pathologists, has taken an interest in producing a television series about the bog body.


Got all that? This overly complex plot and jumble of characters really slows the book down. The Fletcher Christian story is interesting and tantalizing as it is doled out a paragraph at a time at the beginning of each chapter. And some of the characters are well drawn. But there are so many threads to follow that the actual story moves at a glacial pace for the first two-thirds of the book. I can see a number of less patient readers giving up.

On the other hand, if you don’t mind a slow pace and you enjoy watching an author develop characters and setting you might enjoy what McDermid attempts here. That same Pop Matters review had this to say:

Some of these elements veer toward the cartoonish, but McDermid mixes them all together with a deft touch. From the business practices of London gangsters to the back-stabbings of academic allies to the small-mindedness of rural folk, McDermid gets everything just right, with just enough atmosphere, character development and period detail to lend weight to the gaudier pleasures of who killed whom and why. Throughout the narrative McDermid maintains a nice tone of realism.

On the other side of the scale, Entertainment Weekly (perhaps not the authority you’re looking for) didn’t find much to like:

Scholar Jane Gresham may be on the verge of finding a lost Wordsworth epic recounting the mutiny on the Bounty in Val McDermid’s thriller The Grave Tattoo. If only Jane were more discreet; she tells everyone who’ll listen why she’s so certain the poem exists. What little tension can be found in this dull, workmanlike thriller comes from thinly drawn baddies who want a piece of the action. McDermid also throws in a corpse in a bog that may be Fletcher Christian’s, a first-person account of the mutiny, and a teenage girl on the run from a horrific, unrelated crime. By the time the novel finally starts sailing in the last 50 pages, you’re ready to throw it overboard.

I would place myself somewhere in the middle, although leaning a bit more towards the Pop Matters view. I was impatient with the slow developing plot, and the time spent on minor characters, but I stuck it out and enjoyed the story when it finally began to pick up the pace.

If you are looking for fast paced action and tight plotting this is not for you. But if you have an interest in William Wordsworth, the Lake District, or just enjoy multi-layered plots with lots of secondary characters, there is plenty to enjoy in The Grave Tattoo.

About the author

Kevin Holtsberry

I work in communications and public affairs. I try to squeeze in as much reading as I can while still spending time with my wife and two kids (and cheering on the Pittsburgh Steelers and Michigan Wolverines during football season - oh, and watching golf too).

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