Monday, December 20, 2010

In The Spotlight: Val McDermid's The Grave Tattoo

Hello, All,

Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. Scottish crime novelist Val McDermid is justly famous for her stories of psychological suspense. And that sub-genre of crime fiction has become a force to be reckoned with in the genre. So it seems appropriate to spotlight one of McDermid’s novels. Today, let’s take a closer look at The Grave Tattoo.

As this novel begins, a long-dead body surfaces in a bog near Fellhead in England’s Lake District. Distinctive tattoos on the body suggest that it’s probably the body of a sailor. Before long, rumours begin to spread that the body might be that of famous local son Fletcher Christian, who led a successful mutiny on the H.M.S. Bounty. Although it had always been believed that Christian died on Pitcairn Island, there were also stories that he survived and returned to his homeland. Fellhead native Jane Gresham, who now lives and works in London, hears about the body and realises that this discovery could mean the scholarly find of a lifetime for her. Jane, a Wordsworth scholar, knows that Wordsworth and Fletcher Christian were longtime friends. She’s also read several hints that Wordsworth might have written an as-yet-undiscovered poem about Christian’s travels. If that’s the case, then finding that manuscript could ensure a successful career for Jane. So she returns to Fellhead to begin work on tracing the manuscript, if it exists.

Jane’s up against several obstacles as she searches. First, there’s the matter of tracing family lineages and finding out which members of which Lake District family might have the manuscript. Then, there’s the task of persuading whoever has the manuscript to allow Jane to have it. There’s also the fact that Jane’s not the only one who’s desperate to find that manuscript, which could be worth a fortune. Her former lover Jake Hartnell, for instance, is a dealer in rare manuscripts and books. He and his business partner and current lover Caroline Kerr have more than a passing interest in the manuscript. Jane also has to contend with her brother Matthew, with whom she’s always had a troubled relationship, and who may try to sabotage her efforts, but who just might have found an important piece of the puzzle Jane is trying to solve.

As Jane’s busy tracking down people who might have knowledge of the manuscript, one of the elderly local residents of the area dies. And then another dies. Before long, DI Ewan Rigston begins to think that the deaths might be murders and that Jane herself might be involved in them. Matters aren’t helped by the fact that Jane’s keeping an important secret from everyone: she’s hiding thirteen-year-old Tenille Cole, an intelligent, street-smart London neighbour who’s run away from a terrible home situation and an unwarranted accusation of murder. Tenille shares Jane’s love of poetry and wants to help her friend find the manuscript. Her decision to do what she can to help, though, only makes things more complicated for both of them. At the risk of sounding cliché, the closer Jane gets to the truth about the body in the bog, the manuscript and the killings, the more in danger she is.

Several elements are woven through this novel. One of them is the theme of “Us vs. Them.” For example, Jane lives in Marshpool Farm Estate, a grandly-named but lower-class community in London. Jane’s an educated member of the middle class, and there are clear differences between her and many of the other residents, most of whom dislike and distrust Whites who are from the middle class. We also see this theme in the attitudes of many of the Lake District locals, including Jane’s own family members. To many of the locals, there’s a distinct difference between people who’ve always lived in the Lake District and are therefore “one of us,” and incomers – people who arrived more recently. There’s also quite a lot of local prejudice against those who buy holiday homes in the area, but don’t really contribute to the local economy. Also clear throughout the novel is the mutual distrust between Londoners and residents of the Lake District. We see this, for instance, when London DI Donna Blair, who’s trying to locate Tenille Cole, traces her to Fellhead and works with Ewan Rigston to try to find the girl. The two do work together professionally enough, but neither is comfortable with the partnership. We also see it when Jane’s work colleague Dan Seabourne travels to Fellhead to help her in her search for the manuscript.

Another important element in this novel is the history that’s at the heart of Jane Gresham’s search. McDermid uses parallel timelines to tell two stories. One is the modern-day story of the search for the manuscript and the efforts to identify the body in the bog, as well as the search for a murderer. The other is the story of Fletcher Christian. Each chapter includes part of Christian’s story, and we learn what might have motivated him to lead the famous mutiny, as well as what happened to him afterwards. Through that story, and through Jane’s conversations, we also learn about William Wordsworth and the times in which he and Christian lived. We also get a sense of history as various Lake District residents tell the stories of their families’ long-ago relationships, and as Jane Gresham sorts out the many local kinship ties.

Also woven throughout this novel is the reality of academic intrigue and academic life. To be the first to find a long-hidden manuscript of such significance is enough to ensure a successful place in academia. So apart from her interest in the manuscript for itself, Jane’s eager to find it because of what it might mean for her professionally. As the novel begins, she’s a poorly-paid teaching assistant hoping for an academic career. She and Dan Seabourne are

“…both sailors in the same boat; post-doctoral researchers, scrabbling for any teaching that might lead to the elusive grail of a permanent lecturing job, desperate to make an impression on their professor and to make ends meet.”

Although Jane’s not a greedy person, she’s also sorely tempted by the chance the manuscript would give her to make her name in academia. Jake Hartnell and Caroline Kerr know the value of the manuscript, too, and are willing to do just about anything to find it.

Serving as a dramatic backdrop to this mystery is the Lake District itself, which is also an important element in the story. The region is famous for, among other things, its scenery, and as the novel evolves, we get a real sense of what the area is like:

“The night’s rain had left a sparkle in the air, brightening the turning leaves and deepening the greys and greens of the landscape. The sun was climbing behind Helvellyn, casting a golden halo round the summit. She [Jane] turned to look upwards at the great gluff of Langmere Fell, its craggy outcroppings dark against the sky. She could see her father’s sheep, pale grey and cream blurs against the bracken and scrubby grass of the high moorland where they grazed.”

This natural scenery provides a “stage” for the academic and personal dramas that unfold in the novel. But what’s your view? Have you read The Grave Tattoo? If you have, what elements do you see in it?

Coming Up On In The Spotlight

Monday 27 December/Tuesday 28 December – The Far Side of the Dollar – Ross MacDonald

Monday 3 January/Tuesday 4 January – 4:50 From Paddington – Agatha Christie

Monday 10 January/Tuesday 11 January – The Tin Collectors – Stephen J. Cannell


  1. Oh, I loved this novel. It took three tries before I finished it. I just couldn't get past the first few chapters but once I did, I kicked myself for not finishing it sooner. What a great book!

    I loved the little girl in the novel. Her story's subplot really added to the story. It upped the suspense. I'm glad you did this book on your spotlight series.

  2. Clarissa - I'm glad you liked this novel so much. And you've got a very good point. The character of Tenille Cole and her story make for an interesting sub-plot, and her perspective is a fascinating counterpoint to Jane Gresham's perspective.

  3. I had read a couple of Jordan/Hill thrillers before this one so I remember my amazement that Val McDermid had also written this delightful cock-and-bull tale. I didn´t believe the plot one bit, but I thought it was great entertainment.

  4. Dorte - It's just my opinion but yes, the story does carry one along, and so do the characters, even if the plot isn't an everyday, plausible thing to happen. You bring up an interesting thing, too: many authors who write excellent and successful series become known for those series and less well for their standalones.

  5. I always learn so much from your Spotlights. This is a book that I haven't read but you have definitely peaked my interest in it. It sounds very intriguing.

    Thoughts in Progress

  6. For me this is one of Val McDermid's better books, not least because it is set in my favourite part of England, the Lake District. Thanks for reminding me of the novel in your excellent post.
    best wishes

  7. Mason - Thanks :-) - That's so kind of you. It does have some important things to recommend it, I think. One is the characters. Some of them come across as really quite authentic. And the setting is one of the most memorable things about this novel, I think.

    Maxine - Thanks for the kind words :-). I, too, thoroughly enjoyed the Lake District setting. I've never been there, although someday I hope to. This novel really places the reader remarkably well, I think.