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The Grave Tattoo    by Val McDermid order for
Grave Tattoo
by Val McDermid
Order:  USA  Can
HarperCollins, 2006 (2006)
Hardcover, Softcover, Audio, CD
* *   Reviewed by Hilary Williamson

Val McDermid writes a wide variety of thrillers from her early mystery series featuring PI Kate Brannigan (who has a remarkable romantic relationship with the wimp next door) to her recent serial chillers starring psychological profiler Tony Hill and detective Carol Jordan. But she has also penned psychological studies like The Distant Echo, and now branches out into something again different from her previous works in The Grave Tattoo.

Her star this time is Lake District native and William Wordsworth specialist, academic Jane Gresham. Jane lives in a run down East End estate in London, works in bars to make ends meet, and teaches, while writing a book on the great poet. She also has a longstanding fascination with a legendary meeting between Wordsworth and Fletcher Christian, known for his role in the Mutiny on the Bounty. Widely believed to have died in the Pacific, local legend in her home district is that Christian returned from Pitcairn Island and lived out his life close to friends and family in the English Lake District ... also that Wordsworth was his old schoolfriend and may have written a priceless lost epic of his adventures.

Thirteen-year-old Tenille lives with her aunt in the same tenement as Jane, skips school, but breathes in Jane's books and 'not only adored but also seemed to grasp the significance of the writings of Wordsworth, Coleridge, Shelley and De Quincey' with an ease that awes her mentor. When Tenille comes to Jane for help dealing with her aunt's new boyfriend who tried to rape her, Jane approaches Tenille's supposed father, a 'serious gangsta' named the Hammer. This leads to violence, sends Tenille on the run from police, and arouses police suspicion of Jane's involvement.

Unaware of what's transpiring, Jane heads home, after reading a newspaper article about a body found in a peat bog, with what might be South Sea tattoos - she immediately suspects its might be that of Fletcher Christian, and decides it's time to see if her theory can be proved. Her brother Matthew is a headmaster at the small rural school where he grew up. He was 'born aggrieved' and has evolved their childhood sibling rivalry into an entrenched adult resentment. He starts a student project on family trees, that yields information key to Jane's research. Will he share it?

Other players include Jane's gay university colleague (and friend) Dan who helps her with her research; her ex-lover Jake Hartnell, who is after the fruits of her work to impress his new boss and lover; attractive, ambitious Dr. River Wilde who's assessing the bog body; and River's new lover, tough DCI Ewan Rigston All these actors are in place when old folk start to die - all on Jane's list of people to interview about her Christian/Wordsworth theory. As the violence escalates, Jane is also targeted, leading to a heart pounding conclusion.

Though this was not my favorite of Val McDermid's novels (and I guessed the villain's identity rather early) anything she writes is worth reading. The Bounty/Wordsworth connection made for fascinating speculation, while both Jane and Tenille are great characters, ably supported by an intriguing range of secondaties. The Grave Tattoo is a worthy addition to the impressive McDermid bibliography, a must read for the author's legion of fans.

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