From The Philadelphia Inquirer
Posted on Wed, Feb. 07, 2007
Uniting the poet and the mutineer
The Grave Tattoo
By Val McDermid
St Martin's Minotaur.
390 pp. $24.95
Reviewed by Maxine Clarke
A little-known fact about Fletcher Christian, leader of the mutiny on the Bounty, was that he was born on a farm in Cumbria, in the English Lake District, in 1764, six years before William Wordsworth, whom he probably knew.
Val McDermid's latest novel is an inventive historical mystery taking off from these bare facts. The trigger is the discovery of a body in a Lakeland fell, a body well over 100 years old and covered with tattoos in what turn out to be all the right places. Capt. William Bligh had described Christian thus: "5 ft. 9 in. High. Dark Swarthy Complexion. Hair - Blackish or very dark brown. Make - Strong. A Star tatowed [sic] on his left Breast, and tatowed on the backside."
The book's main character, Jane Gresham, is a Wordsworth scholar struggling to make ends meet in a part-time, underfunded position at London University. She works in a bar to pay the rent for a rundown council flat in a notorious area of the capital, and has befriended a 13-year-old neighbor, Tenille, who shares Jane's passion for Wordsworth. Tenille hides out in Jane's flat when she needs to escape from the domestic dangers of life with her guardian, a feckless aunt.
For some years, Jane has been working on a theory that Wordsworth and Christian were at school together, and that after the mutiny Christian left Pitcairn Island and returned to England to clear his name. Bligh, of course, had managed to survive being cast adrift in an open boat and had already returned home himself. So Christian could never have cleared his name, and Jane believes he was sheltered by Wordsworth. What is more, she thinks Wordsworth wrote a poem to vindicate Fletcher - a poem he meant to be published after both he and his subject had died, but that was hidden by Wordsworth's children and subsequent descendants.
Jane's theory has run into the ground for lack of evidence, but when she learns about the discovery of the body she dashes up to the Lake District to see if the cadaver could in fact be Christian. Tenille, however, finds herself on the run from the police and frantically makes for the only person she can trust: Jane. Added to the mix are Jake, Jane's ex-boyfriend who has deserted academia for the private sector and who is after the lost poem for its huge financial value; River, a female pathologist who wants to maximize the media value of her work on the body; a divorced cop; and Dan, a strangely eager, helpful academic colleague of Jane's. All these threads converge in a "pick-and-mix" literary confection based around the village of Grasmere and the local inhabitants.
Val McDermid has written about a score of excellent crime-fiction books. Originally published by a women's publisher (the Women's Press) and long admired by readers of detective stories, she has fairly recently broken into the big time with the TV serialization of her books on criminal psychologist Tony Hill. McDermid also wrote two other series, one about freelance journalist Lindsay Gordon, and another about a Manchester-based P.I., Kate Brannigan, as well as excellent if harrowing stand-alone novels.
The Grave Tattoo is well up to the standard of these previous offerings, but is much lighter in tone: It owes far more to the cozy tradition of Agatha Christie than the hard-boiled legacy of Raymond Chandler.
McDermid's last few books have been pretty graphic. The Grave Tattoo, however, contains nothing that would make your granny flinch. It is the most mainstream of McDermid's works that I've read.
The Grave Tattoo is strongest in its descriptions of the Lake District. The life of a fell farmer, the problems of living and working in a major tourist attraction, the weather and countryside are all convincingly and naturally portrayed. Where the book is less successful is in the characters, who are all somewhat wooden.
Jane is an attractive enough heroine, and her family seems realistic, but the other characters, Tenille and her gang-lord father in particular, are weak and one-dimensional. The details of the plot, too, don't stand up to careful scrutiny: How likely is it that nobody at Jane's work would know her cell phone number, or that the local police would never think to look up her parents in the phone book?
Still, it's a fast and easily digestible read. My advice is lock the doors, switch off the phone, put the kettle on, and settle in for two or three hours. It won't take any longer than that to read the book, and the process will be pleasant enough.
What of the Christian theory? You'll have to read the book to find out McDermid's own explanation. In reality, the considered view is that the link between Wordsworth and Christian, first suggested in a 1950s book, The Wake of the Bounty by C.S. Wilkinson - used as a source by McDermid - is fanciful. (Wilkinson even suggested that Christian was the model for Coleridge's Ancient Mariner.) Wordsworth and Christian were not at school together, although Wordsworth did attend the same school for six months - after Christian had left. The families did know each other, but there is no evidence for ties as close as those espoused by Wilkinson or McDermid's Jane Gresham. Wordsworth scholar Mary Moorman, in her review of Wilkinson's book, demolished most of the thesis.
Facts, of course, are not romantic, and McDermid's artistic license makes for an engaging and clever plot. The Grave Tattoo is none the worse for that.
Maxine Clarke is an editor at the science journal Nature. Read her blog Petrona at http://petrona.typepad.com.