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When torrential summer rains uncover a bizarrely tattooed body on a Lake District hillside, old wives’ tales come swirling to the surface. For centuries Lakelanders have whispered that Fletcher Christian, infamous Bounty mutineer, staged the massacre on Pitcairn Island so he could return home. And there he told his story to an old friend and schoolmate, William Wordsworth,who turned it into a long narrative poem—one kept hidden lest it expose Wordsworth to the gallows for harbouring a fugitive. Wordsworth specialist Jane Gresham, herself a native of the Lake District, feels compelled to discover once and for all if the manuscript ever existed—and whether it still exists today. But as she pursues each new lead, death follows hard on her heels. Suddenly Jane is at the heart of a 200-year-old mystery that continues to put lives on the line. Against the dramatic backdrop of England’s Lake District a drama of life and death plays out, its ultimate prize a bounty worth millions.

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Barry Hammond
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Val McDermid’s latest novel, The Grave Tattoo, may be one of her most interesting books yet.  This standalone novel mixes historical fact with fiction—always a tricky balance to achieve—but McDermid pulls it off by treating the history with the gravity it requires while maintaining the excitement and action of a superior crime novel. 

The story hinges on the legend of a sailor, Fletcher Christian, who became infamous for leading the mutiny on the Bounty.  Fletcher Christian went to school with the great poet, William Wordsworth, and the two families had other close ties.  There is a Lake District legend that Fletcher Christian survived the massacre on Pitcairn Island, faked his death, and secretly returned to England, where he was under sentence of death.  Once there, he told his side of the mutiny to Wordsworth, who wrote an epic poem about it.  The poem was never published, but may have been kept secret and passed down in family papers for generations.

In The Grave Tattoo, McDermid’s Wordsworth scholar Jane Gresham comes upon some previously unrecorded letters which seem to confirm this story, possibly proving the legend true.  When a body is discovered in a peat bog in the Lake District with black tattoos of the sort that sailors like Fletcher Christian got in Tahiti, the legend starts up again with fresh vigour.  While forensic anthropologist Dr. River Wilde investigates the corpse for a television documentary, Jane Gresham returns on study leave to her home in Fellhead, trying to track down the documentation that will prove her theory true and possibly bring the lost poem to light.

In the midst of all this academic inquiry, however, are baser motives:  the discovery of a new manuscript by Wordsworth would be worth millions of dollars.  Jane’s ex-boyfriend, Jake, is also on the trail for his new boss and lover, Caroline, an unscrupulous rare manuscript dealer.  Schoolteacher Matthew Gresham, Jane’s chronically jealous and dissatisfied brother, is doing a school project on tracing family trees.  Is he concealing information from Jane for his own purposes?  Tenille, Jane’s teenage neighbor in London and daughter of a notorious gangster is also following her.  The police say she’s on the run for the murder of her aunt’s boyfriend, who was sexually abusing her.  What does Jane know about that?  When some of the names Jane Gresham is researching are murdered Jane herself, as the thread that connects them, falls under suspicion by the police.  Can Jane sort out all these intertwined connections, clear her name, and keep herself alive during the process?

McDermid keeps the reader guessing by salting the story with plenty of red herrings and lots of chapter-to-chapter action.  Complex, believable characters rub shoulders with personalities from England’s history.  It’s the sort of book that lovers of academic mysteries won’t be able to put down until the wee hours of the morning.  It combines real-life historical background with the kind of exciting police procedural we’ve come to expect from Val McDermid.  It’s a fine addition to McDermid’s body of work.

Other reviews by Barry Hammond:
Blackfly Season
The Maltese Falcon
The Closers