Author Val McDermid centers The Grave Tattoo on the legend of famed mutineer Fletcher Christian (1764 – 1793) and his relationship to
the English poet William Wordsworth (1770-1850).
Christian was a Master's Mate on board the Bounty during William Bligh's fateful voyage to Tahiti, and it was Fletcher Christian who seized command of the
ship from Bligh on April 28th, 1789, claiming the crew were suffering from inhumane treatment.
Christian ended up living on Pitcairn Island, where he later died along with the other mutineers. But did Christian really die, or was his murder faked? Did he in fact make it all the way back to England
to live out the rest of his life in his birthplace, hidden from justice by his family and friends, safely ensconced in the Cumbria
Lake District area of England?
When a tattooed body is found half preserved in the brackish water of a peat bog just outside of Fellhead, local Wordsworth scholar Jane Gresham jumps at the chance to investigate.
Jane has been eking out a living in the rundown Marshpool Farm Estate in London.
She sees the discovery of this body as an opportunity to raise herself out of semi-poverty and perhaps even prove her long-held theory that, indeed, Fletcher did return to England and chose to tell his version of events to his old school friend.
Jane is banking on the fact that Wordsworth couldn't have ignored a story as big as this.
She is also convinced there is a lost masterpiece, a poem that Wordsworth wrote about the legend of what happened to his notorious friend.
Jane travels to her childhood home of Fellhead while her thirteen-year-old friend Tenille, who has a unique gift for interpreting poetry, is stuck back in London, at the mercy of her aunt's obnoxious boyfriend. But when a terrible tragedy strikes in the form of a deadly murder and a house fire, Tenille also travels to the Lake District in order to find Jane, convinced that only her older friend can help her.
Meanwhile, reports of a secret manuscript are circulating, rumored to have been entrusted into the care of one of the Wordsworth family servants, a maid called Dorcas Mason, who had actually worked for William Wordsworth and who was perhaps given his undiscovered poem for safekeeping.
While Jane's investigation becomes ever more convoluted in a developing series of clues, local forensic anthropologist Dr. River Wilde continues to evaluate the bog body, hoping that the tattoos - synonymous with eighteenth century sailors from the South Sea Islands – will eventually shed some light on his identity.
Obviously Dorcas Mason's past was a secret history as far as her family was concerned, but someone, somewhere has a little treasure trove whose contents have never been thoroughly explored. This doesn't help Jane, though, who soon realizes there are other parties who have a keen interest invested in obtaining the illusive manuscript and will go
even so far as committing murder to obtain it.
Edgy and atmospheric and full of tension and treachery, The Grave Tattoo is an historian's delight, a fascinating mix of genealogy and genetics as McDermid's compelling narrative effortlessly hops from the past to present, tossing bits of information around about the legend of Fletcher Christian as she entwines an exciting tale of English history, family secrets and deception lurking in places where you least expect it.