I have long been a fan of psychological crime thrillers, but for whatever reason, The Grave Tattoo is my first experience with a Val McDermid title. Now having read it, I can certainly see why critics of the day considered it to be McDermid's breakthrough effort, and I look forward to reading more of her work.
This intricately plotted novel seems to have something for every kind of mystery fan. Its core plot involves the 200-year-old body pulled out of a Lake District peat bog that a forensic scientist has cleverly nicknamed “Pirate Peat” because of the intricate tattoos still visible on the body. Interesting as the body already is, there is a strong possibility that it could turn out to be an even more important find than it appears to be at first glance. Local lore says that Bounty mutineer Fletcher Christian somehow survived the aftermath of that famous incident, made his way back to his home area, and disappeared there for good. Could this be the famous sailor’s body?
Wordsworth scholar Jane Gresham, who grew up near where the bog body was found, believes there is more to the Fletcher Christian story. Her research indicates a strong possibility that Christian told his story to William Wordsworth, an old classmate of his, before he disappeared. She believes it likely that Wordsworth wrote down what he was told by Christian before producing a long lost poem about his old friend's adventures. Jane knows how successfully the Wordsworth family guarded its privacy and reputation, so it makes sense to her that the poem and notes would have been hidden away rather than being made public during the author's lifetime. But they are out there somewhere, she thinks, and if it can be proved that Pirate Peat is really Fletcher Christian, it will prove that she is on the right track.
Intriguing as this story line is, it is easy for readers to lose themselves in McDermid's side plots involving Jane's friends and family. The most intriguing thread involves the thirteen-year-old mixed race girl whom Jane has befriended in the infamous London housing project she is forced to live in – being a Wordsworth scholar and college lecturer does not seem to pay particularly well and London rents are high, after all. Tenille is a pet project of Jane's, a kid she is trying to save from the future that already seems destined to be hers.
Wordsworth's papers, if they exist and can be found, will be worth millions to the right collector, and as is always the case, some are willing to do whatever it takes to get their hands on something so precious. Jane’s life gets complicated when characters from all the side plots start showing up in the Lake District for reasons of their own. Suddenly nothing makes sense to Jane. If she is to find the documents she is so certain exist, she will need lots of help – but whom can she trust? Her brother seems to be in a race to find the papers before she does; the police are accusing her of hiding a murder suspect; and people are dying all around her.