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I have read a few novels by Val McDermid and this is not quite as good as the others I have read but more about that later. It is difficult to place this novel into a specific genre. I would put it across the thriller/murder mystery/historical novel areas as it does cross over all these three.
A body has been found near Fellhead in the Lake District buried in the peat bogs (referred to as 'the body in the bog' and 'Pirate Peat'). As it turns out the police aren't interested in it. It has been there for some time, so long in fact that if foul play was suspected then s/he who committed the crime would have long since died as well.
Jane Gresham is on a quest to find a rumoured lost poem written by Wordsworth on the subject of Fletcher Christian. This body has tattoos similar to those Christian reputedly received in the South Sea Islands. This find gives a boost to Jane's theory that Fletcher Christian returned to the lakes many years after the incident with the Bounty and that he gave Wordsworth his version of events and Wordsworth had written it all down in the form of a poem but never published it or showed it to anyone else. Jane returns to the Lakes where she grew up in order to investigate and to see if her theory is right.
Jane finds far more than she bargained for as an unfortunate series of events begins to unfold and with a rising body count, if it exists, can she find what she is looking for before it is too late......
What I thought of it:
There has obviously been a lot of research done by the author around the life and writings of Wordsworth and the mutiny on the Bounty as this does feature in short sections at the start of each chapter written as if it is in the viewpoint of Fletcher Christian. Although some of the geography of the Lake District may not be 100% correct I feel only true locals to the area would really pick up on it.
As with all of the books by McDermid which I have read this is on the whole well written and at it was hard at times to put down. Although it took a while to really get going there are enough twists in the plot to maintain the readers' interest and to keep you guessing as to what the final outcome will be. Also I had the immediate feeling of wanting to find out who the body in the bog was and had to resist temptation to turn to the last chapter to find out.
The chapters are fairly short and so it does give points where you can put it down for the night. There is a bit of jumping around within chapters between what appears to be the main plot and the sub plots, however, most of these do all tie together well as the novel progresses.
Whilst the story does build well to the final conclusion I couldn't help feeling a little disappointed in the way the novel ends. I have the feeling that writers block had started to set in and it was a case of 'it's an ending'. I feel that this could have been more dramatic without going over the top.
The setting of the majority of the novel is the Lake District and the descriptions of the area have been well done to demonstrate how spread out some of the houses and villages are in some of the remote parts of the Lakes as well as some of the natural beauty of the area. Also there is the indication of how old some of the houses are in some of the areas of the Lakes. The feelings of the people who grew up in the lakes who now feel that their communities and villages have been ruined by weekenders who buy property and only stay in them for the odd weekend now and then is also portrayed within the novel. As someone who grew up not far from the Lake District I can sympathise with this feeling.
The main characters are well developed and from early on in the book you do want Jane to succeed in her mission. Jane, whilst an academic, has found that for her academia does not pay all that well and has found herself, much to her mum's distress, living in a fairly rough London council estate. Tenille, a teenager who lives in the same London council estate as Jane, I feel is used more as a plot point to begin with but she does eventually become an important part of the main story. Tenille is seen by many as a 'no hoper' due to her background and where she lives. Jane, however, sees that Tenille is more intelligent than people give her credit for and has seen that Tenille shows promise especially in literature.
There are a number of secondary characters, most of whom are far less developed, but very few of them are what I would call throw away characters as the majority of them add to the plot in some way. Most of these are within the same family who live in the Fellhead area of the Lake District.
The bitterness Jane feels towards her ex-boyfriend, Jake, comes through right from the start. During the middle part of the novel Jake is portrayed as a slimy toad who would sell his own grandmother at the right price. As for Jane's brother, Matthew, I fail to see the point in this character. He adds little to the story except for giving the sibling rivalry part to the family life. Matthew only turns up sporadically throughout the novel and the only important bit from his side is that the class he has been teaching produces a clue which would help Jane, not that Matthew intends to tell her about it.
Dr River Wilde(yes that is her name) a forensic anthropologist is also out to make a name for herself and the body in the bog looks like the ideal opportunity. So much so that she tries to get a TV company interested in recording and broadcasting the autopsy of the body - all so they can pay for the tests she wants to do. Whilst, like Matthew, she is a bit of a sporadically used character she does add more to the story and is a more likeable character.
Well written on the whole with some good characters.
When I read the plot synopsis for The Grave Tattoo, I groaned inwardly at the prospect of yet another book dealing with the quest to uncover a long-lost manuscript containing secrets... When I finished it, I groaned inwardly again... dismayed at the fact I had reached the end of such an enjoyable book.
The plot surrounds the potential existence of a previously unknown epic poem by William Wordsworth, telling the tale of the mutiny on the Bounty from the perspective of his old friend and leader of the mutiny, the leader of the mutiny. Chasing this manuscript is Dr Jane Gresham, a young academic obsessed with the missing manuscript. Needless to say, it's not long before people start dying.
What The Grave Tattoo lacks in originality, it certainly makes up for in entertainment value, proving an addictive and compulsive read. Although the plot actually proceeds at a fairly steady pace, it never feels as though it is dragging. By taking this slightly slower pace, there is far more opportunity to build up the setting, the characters and the back-story. For the Grave Tattoo, atmosphere is more important than action and, whilst some might accuse the book of being rather sleepy-paced, I found it an enjoyable change.
I threw the accusation of unoriginality at The Grave Tattoo above. Whilst that's true in terms of basic plot, it's a little unfair in other regards, For a start, most books of this kind involve whizzing around from exotic location to exotic location, pursuing clues and escaping devious traps set by the bad guys. There's very little of that here. Things proceed at a much gentler pace and this adds a surprising amount to the book. Rather than being a breathless chase from one clue to the next, you actually have the chance to think about what has been discovered and try to work out how it all fits together. Arguably, The Grave Tattoo is more a "detective" story than a "treasure hunt" tale.
Inevitably, as Gresham begins to uncover clues relating to the manuscript's whereabouts, people start to die... but again, this aspect has a slightly different spin. Normally in this genre, the deaths are spectacular and/or gruesome. Here, the people appear to have died naturally, leaving Jane with the job of trying to convince the local police that they were murdered. When she finally convinces them to take her seriously, she becomes the prime suspect! It's these layers, this slightly different taken which add an extra element and stop it from just becoming another run of the mill Da Vinci Code rip-off.
That said, it's not exactly taxing. By around halfway through the book, I had narrowed the list down to two chief suspects, and by the three-quarter mark, was fairly certain I knew who the guilty party was. Although it ultimately turned out I was right, this didn't spoil my enjoyment of the book in any way at all. On the contrary, it made me want to read the rest of the book as quickly as possible to see if I was right and seeing whether further clues supported or ran against my theory.
This was the first Val McDermid I had ever read and has a very readable style. Her language is simple, yet evocative, so whilst the book is easy to read, through the power of her descriptions, you feel like you are actually witnessing these events. Since the plot is relatively straight forward, giving you time to digest clues, you never feel lost. McDermid makes the most of this, feeding you clues, but then deliberately slowing the pace down to give you the chance to think about where that information fits in. She also intersperses the main chapters with writings from the diary of Fletcher Christian. This both serves to give the book an authentic feel and help the reader to understand why the document that is being sought is so important. It also breaks up the main plot and stops it from becoming too formulaic.
I admit I probably got more enjoyment out of this book because of its location. The book is set in and around Keswick - a place I know very well. No matter how well a writer brings a place to life (and McDermid does it well) it always adds an extra dimension if you can envisage the places the characters visit. Don't worry though: even if you've never been to the Lake District you'll enjoy the book - the writing and plot are strong enough in their own right to entertain you; but you might get that little bit more out of it if you know The Lakes.
As with most books of this kind, you can't get away from the fact that the characters are pretty one dimensional and stereotypical. The lead character, Jane Gresham, is pretty well-fleshed out and feels like a real person, but the rest suffer a bit. There's the young black kid from a rough background trying to better herself; the handsome young gay man; the tough but fair policeman and so on. None of these feel terribly genuine - they come across as precisely what they are - artificial constructs of the author's mind. It's a shame, because McDermid invests so much in her central plot and location that his characters sometimes let the book down. Devoting a similar amount of effort to the characters would have benefitted the book greatly.
The other criticism surrounds the ending. Whilst the central theme (the long lost poem) is resolved satisfactorily (if somewhat conveniently), the other key plot element (the discovery of a 200 year old body) isn't and this leaves a slightly sour taste in the mouth. It's almost as if McDermid had completely forgotten about this element (it is, only a small part of the plot, albeit a crucial one) and was reminded about it at the last minute. As such, we effectively get a small epilogue on the end, which doesn't really do justice to this important piece of the jigsaw. After reading through so many pages and enjoying such an interesting tale, it's a shame things are concluded with almost indecent haste.
Finally I always like to have a few notes from the author at the end, making it clear which bits are based on fact and which are fiction. With The Grave Tattoo, there is nothing, the book just ends, further aggravating the feeling of the ending being slightly anti-climactic and abrupt. True, there is a bibliography, but these are just general works on Wordsworth and the Lakeland Poets, rather than about the specific plot. As a result, I have no idea whether the plot has some basis in truth, or whether the whole thing is completely made up. Of course, I could do a bit of digging on the internet to find out for myself, but I'd prefer it included in the text.
It would be too easy to dismiss The Grave Tattoo as "just another treasure hunt" book, but it rises above that, creating a layered, better written effort than many similar titles. A nice, undemanding, read, certainly, but one packed with enough incident to keep you entertained and intrigued, whilst steering clear of the excesses of so many similar titles.
The Grave Tattoo
© Copyright SWSt 2009
The Grave Tattoo.
~ About the Author ~
Val McDermid began her writing career as a journalist, before turning to writing novels, and is without a doubt the UK's best known female writer of thriller books.
Even those who might not have read her books, are likely to know her for her best known series - Wire in the Blood, which has been made into a TV series featuring Robson Green, and currently Simone Lahbib.
The Grave Tattoo was first published in 2006.
~ The Book synopsis ~
After unusual amounts of rain, a body is uncovered in the peat hillsides of The Lake District.
It becomes apparent this is a fairly old body, but its even more intriguing to find that it is covered in a variety of tattoos.
Meanwhile in London, local Lake District lass Jane Gresham is barely surviving her time in the capital. Her home consists of a flat on a run down housing estate, but she has also struck up a very unusual friendship with one of the local girls, Tenile, who is an enigma to those who know her - She often plays truant from school, but is completely taken with poetry and literature, and it is this connection that forges the relationship she has with Jane.
Jane is a Wordsworth expert and has always been fascinated with Christian Fletcher, and when she finds out about the body, her instinct is that despite official stories to the contrary, she has always believed Christian made his way back to the area, and could this tattoo covered body be that of Christian Fletcher?
In order to find out Jane goes back home to The Lakes. In the meantime Tenile becomes a suspect in the murder of her mothers current live in lover, and so she also flees London to follow Jane. Once in The Lake District, the body count in the area also begins to rise, and what seemed like tragic events to begin with suddenly take on a much more sinister turn.
~ Thoughts on the book ~
I was intrigued when I read the back cover because I could tell this might be a slightly different direction to the usual Val McDermid book, and I actually like the idea of what it was about, so was pleased when a family member decided to give me a copy as a present.
I'm still not sure what I think about this book. One part of me loved it, the other part of me wondered if it really was that good?
So what am I not sure about? Well to begin with I found some of the characters just not as in-depth as I'm used to reading, particularly with a Val McDermid novel. Her biggest strength for me has always been the depth of character she has put in, whether it's a good guy, the baddie, or simply a secondary character.
Yet here I didn't quite connect with the characters in the same way, and yet I didn't absolutely dislike them, but they could have been much stronger in my opinion.
Of the characters the biggest disappointment was Tenile who just wasn't convincing. I felt her character was unrealistic and certainly not someone I've ever known in real life, again something that Val McDermid is usually so good at getting right. I've known a lot of people from neighbourhoods she supposedly comes from, and the differences with her were just too marked. I suppose it might be somewhere someone is like her, but I just can't imagine it.
I have nothing against Teniles background, but I really think she would have been far more believable had her family been more grounded. Tenile worked in the context of the story, but didn't quite work in the context of her own background.
What I did enjoy was the atmospheric descriptions that were piled right throughout the book. This is another strong area of McDermid's writing and she doesn't disappoint with edgy writing, often mixed well with more mundane events. This is important when you have a historical aspect in the story, as this does, because it helps keep you focused when hopping between the different times.
But unfortunately this also brings me to my biggest gripe of the whole book, and that were the "flashbacks" that McDermid inserted throughout the whole thing. While it was fairly interesting at the beginning, and helped set the scenes, by the midway point I was gaining absolutely nothing from reading them, and when I came to these passages in the book, I actually began to skip them altogether, and it didn't stop me from understanding the story or not getting any of the plot that was unfolding in the rest of the book. Totally unnecessary in my opinion, because by being able to completely ignore these passages, it shows how little they contributed to the overall story.
At times as well, it also felt as if there were just too many secondary characters. Again this is something that McDermid is usually so strong with, but here it just got too convoluted at times, and strangled some of the dialogue. Thankfully, McDermid is a good enough writer to just about rescue the book in this instance, and so while I find it bizarre an area she is usually so strong at is now weakened, it is still well above some other writers out there.
McDermid does manage to keep the pace (with the exception of the flashback excerpts) of the book going along well, and this is another signature of her writing and fortunately this doesn't disappoint in any way, although the ending does feel a little rushed. I personally would have preferred the removal of most of the flashback sequences, and used the space freed up to improve and tighten the ending up. It feels almost as if McDermid was at her word limit, and so couldn't finish the book as neatly as she might otherwise have done.
I admit I was actually a little disappointed when the true villain was revealed because it just didn't seem 'quite' right.
~ Final Thoughts ~
Okay, so I've pointed out the flaws for me when I read this, and it's certainly not without them! But, overall McDermid is a very good writer, and fortunately this does show even in the weaker areas of the book, and its this that rescues it for me.
If I was asked is this one of Val McDermid's best novels, I'm afraid I would say no. Its a slight departure in style to her usual novels, and feels like its a very personal book for her - And perhaps that is part of the reason why it doesn't stand out as strongly as others she has written for me.
Overall, the action does pick up at a nice pace, and while some of the secondary characters don't feel as strong as they usually would, the main ones (with the exception of Tenile) all feel good and solid, and most importantly believable.
I think perhaps the biggest problem is that most McDermid readers know what they are going to get from her - Strong, sometimes even gory thrillers that don't compromise and pack a punch. In this instance, McDermid has moved away from her usual Cops (or Psychologists) and Robbers in a frantic chase against the clock to stop some serial killer or rapist, to a more staid intriguing crime story with an edge of a thriller, but is based heavily on historical events intermingled with fiction.
And it sort of works, but not without its faults. I've tried long and hard to think about how I'm going to rate this book - Hell I even began writing this review weeks ago, and I'm still not sure how I feel about the book, or how to rate it.
One part of me feels it is well written, and a good read. Another part of me thinks that McDermid almost tried too hard with this project, and that some passages are certainly superfluous, while others aren't tight enough. So I ended up wavering between enjoying the book, and getting frustrated with it!
So, I think 3 stars is ultimately the fairest score I can give this. Satisfactory, but not one of her best. Perhaps a good book for someone who is more interested in historical crime novels. I will keep it and most likely read it again at some point in the future, but I don't think it will survive on the shelf beyond a second reading.
~ Availability ~
I was given my copy, but looking around I've seen it on offer from £1-49 upwards.
On average paperbacks seem to be around the £3-50 mark online, exc. Postage.
Also posted on Ciao.
Until a fortnight ago, I had never read any of Val McDermids books. Indeed nor had I even heard of her. I am more accustomed to the likes of Stephen King and Jonathan Kellerman. However, having just finished re-reading most of the books that I have got I decided I wanted to try something new. Initially I went into Sainsbury's before I got on the train to work, with the intention of seeing if they had a Stephen King novel that I hadnt yet read. However they did not appear to have any! What they did have, however, was a book that caught my eye. I'm not sure why but it seemed to be jumping out of the shelf at me. The Grave Tattoo by Val McDermid and it was on special offer at £4.
And so it was with scepticism that I picked up the book from the shelf and stood there reading the back of the cover. My initial thoughts were that the plot seemed to be the sort of thing that I was interested in and I definitely liked the cover illustration. And so I took it up to the counter, paid for it, and boarded my train.
The next week saw me miss my stop twice, and arrive at work oonly to have to finish the chapter I was reading before I could begin to think about my duties. I must say that Val McDermid appears to be a fantastic author and in The Grave Tattoo she has mysteriously interwoven several different parts of the book which all converge into one towards the end.
I shan't give too much away about the plot because I want you to read it yourself, but basically the story follows Jane Gresham, who is a lecturer at the local University. She doesn't earn very much and needs to top up her income by working in local bars as well. She is a big fan of literature and poetry and has a particular interest in William Wordsworth.
She has long thought that Fletcher Christian returned to the lake district after leaving the SOuth Seas, and the discovery of a body in the peat only reinforces these thoughts in her mind.
What happens next is a deep exploration of discovery culminating in the death of several pensioners whom Jane meets in her search for more information into a potential manuscript written by Wordsworth about Fletcher Christian.
Who is murdering all these innocent people and why is it only people whom Jane has met that are getting killed? You will have to read the book to find out!
As the book neared its end I found myself reading more and more, it was extremely difficult to put down and my normal lunchtime surfing activites had become replaced by the incessant need to pick up this book and continue reading.
Obviously as the book contains a series of murders, it may not be appropriate to anybody who is a bit squeamish. None of the murders are particularly violent in my opinion, but some of the language that is used to describe the scenes can be a bit vulgar and a little harrowing.
I think the only thing I didnt like about the book was a few scenes of a sexual nature involving a 13 year old girl. These were ok in themselves, but the author desciribed them in quite graphic detail which was a little disturbing to read.
I particularly like the way that the book keeps changing direction, first going to one area, then another, and then another, before returning to the first. The way Val McDermid has tied all these in to create a fulfilling and easy to read book is amazing.
The book flows easily and it is not difficult to read by any stretch of the imagination, all that you must be able to do is keep several images in mind of previous parts of the book so that you remember them when the story returns there.
Although there are a lot of characters in the book they all seem very realistic and very up to date. Val's descriptions of the main characters Jane Gresham, Tenille Cole and Dan Seabourne are extensive to the point that by the time you finish the book you feel like you know them and you understand where they all fit in.
I liked the book so much that when I finished it, I went straight out and bought another of Val McDermids books - Killing the Shadows. Perhaps unsurprisingly this is as good as the first and I have no doubt that a review will be coming as soon as I have finished reading it.
The version of the book that I bought cost me £4 (rrp £6.99) and was in paperback published by HarperCollins.
This is my first book review so I hope I have covered everything without giving too much away of the plot. Please feel free to leave any comments regarding the content of this review.
Val McDermid, a former journalist, is the author of many crime novels including series featuring criminal profiler Tony Hill; private investigator Kate Brannigan; and journalist Lindsay Gordon. Vals work has received awards including the Crime Writers Association Gold Dagger, the Anthony Award for Best Novel and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize. The Grave Tattoo, published in 2006 and currently available in hardback, is her latest novel.
I do enjoy Vals novels although, being a sensitive soul, some of her murders are a bit too gruesome for my liking. (In fact, this has put me off reading a couple of them.) The Grave Tattoo, Im happy to report, does not fall into this category. Although murders do occur, they are in many ways not the central focus of the novel. In fact, this ambitiously-constructed novel represents something of a new departure for the author, linking real historical figures principally, William Wordsworth and Bounty mutineer Fletcher Christian - with present-day speculative fiction.
The story opens when torrential rain uncovers a long-hidden, heavily-tattooed body on a Lakeland hillside. It soon becomes apparent that the age of the well-preserved body puts it well beyond the remit of the local police. Wordsworth scholar Jane Gresham, who comes from the area despite now living and working in London, immediately sees a possible link to one of her long-cherished beliefs: that local boy Fletcher Christian, far from dying in the massacre on Pitcairn Island as was commonly believed, had in fact secretly returned to the Lakes and may have even made contact with his old schoolfriend William Wordsworth in order to tell his side of the story, possibly later set down by Wordsworth in a poem. The body, which is quickly established to date from the correct period and which bears distinctive tattoos of the type sported by South Sea sailors of the time, does nothing to disprove the hypothesis. Persuading her supervisor to grant her a short leave of absence, Jane heads back to the Lakes to seek further evidence.
Running alongside and eventually converging with the Lake District story is that of Janes thirteen-year-old neighbour on the deprived Marshpool Farm Estate. (University teaching assistants arent, apparently, very well-paid Jane not only lives in a tiny council flat in a highly insalubrious area but also has to top up her income with a part-time bar job). Her neighbour, Tenille, is a young girl from a difficult and unstable background who despite an aversion to attending school - confounds stereotypes by developing a passion for poetry. Seeing the girls potential, Jane adopts a big sister role in her life, but events soon conspire with violent consequences. Meanwhile, the search for possible documents linking Wordsworth and Christian, and maybe even an undiscovered poem by Wordsworth items of not only enormous literary significance, but also potentially of great monetary value is gathering pace.
Other characters include Janes University colleague Dan, her ex-boyfriend Jake who has his own agenda for getting back in touch and a forensic anthropologist with the unlikely name of Dr River Wilde who is called in to examine and try to determine some facts about the body.
The story is interspersed by (fictional) extracts from Wordsworths journal, slowly building a picture for the reader of what really happened to Fletcher Christian during the mutiny on the Bounty and thereafter.
I thoroughly enjoyed this novel, which is based on a bold and intriguing concept. Val McDermid skilfully weaves historical events both real and imagined into the fabric of a contemporary crime novel. A bibliography at the end of the book is testament to the detailed research which clearly went into it. The Lake District backdrop is very well drawn and works beautifully as a setting for dramatic events both past and present. I have no idea what genuine Wordsworth scholars (or indeed experts on the life of Fletcher Christian) would make of it not much, probably but for the lay reader, its a gripping read. (A basic knowledge of Wordsworth and the mutiny on the Bounty though I certainly had no idea that any connection between the two could conceivably have existed - probably does aid enjoyment of the novel, though it is certainly not a necessity.)
The characters are, in the main, well drawn, though I wasnt particularly impressed with forensic anthropologist Dr Wilde or her rather uninteresting romance with a local policeman, which didnt seem to serve much function. Jane and her family are more convincing, though, and I thought the portrayal of Tenille given the obvious limitations of a white, middle-aged writer trying to get inside the head of a teenage black girl was very well done. McDermids and Janes - foray into the criminal underbelly of a notorious council estate was also rather alarmingly convincing.
A quick trawl of Amazon reviews reveals (as usual) widely diverging viewpoints on the novel some, like me, loved it; others felt that McDermid should stop dabbling in all this academic nonsense and get back to what she does best (bloody excursions into the dark, perverse corners of the human mind, presumably). I recommend getting hold of a copy and deciding for yourself.....
Published by Harper Collins, currently available in hardback for £17.99 (£10.78 from Amazon); 480 pages. The paperback isnt out till March 2007. Still, theres always the library.
It's a time-honoured tradition that the best crime writers begin to chafe at the constraints of their area of the genre and feel a need to stretch their literary muscles. With The Grave Tattoo, the estimable Val McDermid demonstrates that she, too, has felt the need of a change from her contemporary novels of crime and detection, and here takes on a truly ambitious panoply. Not that McDermid has been afraid to tackle unconventional subjects before--it's just that the scale of this novel is even more impressive. A corpse is discovered on a hill in the Lake District, adorned with bizarre tattoos. Wordsworth expert Jane Gresham finds herself distracted from her studies of the great Lakeland poet when another mystery surfaces, involving the Pitcairn Massacre and the events of the mutiny on the Bounty. Is it possible that Fletcher Christian, who led the rebellion against Captain Bligh, faked his own death and clandestinely returned to England? Jane makes a connection between the tattooed body and the tattoos on sailors who served in the South Seas--is this the body of Fletcher Christian? And Jane has another problem on her hands--a young girl who she has tried to help finds herself a murder suspect, and tracks her down to the Lakes. And as Jane closes in on a Wordsworth manuscript that may be a direct transcription of Fletcher Christians confession, she finds herself with someone else on her trail--an ex-lover with similar designs on the precious document.