Best known for the Tony Hill and Carol Jordan novels, which have been adapted for television under the name 'Wire in the Blood', Val McDermid is an award-winning Scottish crime writer. She has written other crime fiction series, with characters Lindsay Gordon and Kate Brannigan, but 'The Grave Tattoo' is one of only a handful of stand-alone books that she has published. It is also an move away from her normal territory, with a plot that ranges from a mysteriously tattooed bog body in the Lake District, a Wordsworth expert on the trail of a very precious undiscovered manuscript, and a teenager on the run from a murder charge.
While writing a book on William Wordsworth, academic Jane Gresham, a Lakelands native, can't resist the chance to explore a pet theory of hers: that he had written a narrative poem on the experiences of Fletcher Christian. She believes that Christian, the leader of the mutiny on the Bounty against Captain Bligh, had secretly left the safe haven of Pitcairn and travelled back to his Lake District homeplace to entrust his story to Wordsworth - and that the bog body may just be Christian himself. Between the present-day chapters are extracts from what purports to be Wordsworth's hidden diary, telling of Christian's experiences on the Bounty and Pitcairn, which seem to back up Gresham's theory.
When Gresham rushes to the Lake District to try and find out if the manuscript exists, she inadvertently triggers off a series of murders. She also has to cope with the appearance of an ex-boyfriend who wants to get his hands on the manuscript and unwanted 'help' from a friend, an intelligent mixed-race girl from the rough council estate where she lives.
Confused yet? You will be as you wade through this over-ambitious novel. With a cast of what feels like thousands, the characters are too flimsy to be entirely convincing and people's motives just don't ring true. The basic premise is good - McDermid's imagining of Christian's life is fascinating - but there are too many loose ends and sub-plots that never quite get off the ground. 'The Grave Tattoo' is an easy read, you won't be stuck with it for long, but it will leave you with as many questions as answers.