Magazine article The Spectator

Ancient Trails and Quests

Magazine article The Spectator

Ancient Trails and Quests

Article excerpt

THE GRAVE TATTOO by Val McDermid HarperCollins, £17.99, pp. 467, ISBN 0007142854 . £14.99 (plus £2.45 p&p) 0870 429 6655

THE CONJURER'S BIRD by Martin Davies Hodder, £10, pp. 320, ISBN034092053X . £8 (plus £2.45 p&p) 0870 429 6655

Val McDermid is probably best known for her series of sharply contemporary thrillers featuring a criminal profiler. But some of her standalone novels, in particular the superb A Place of Execution and The Distant Echo, have narrative sections that hark back to a generation earlier; and their plots turn upon the long shadows thrown forward by past crimes. The Grave Tattoo takes this process even further back in time.

At the heart of the story is the intriguing historical link between the families of William Wordsworth and Fletcher Christian.

The two men were schoolfellows, taught by Fletcher's elder brother. There is a persistent legend that the chief mutineer of the Bounty faked his own death in the South Seas and returned to live and die in the Lake District.

What if the two men had talked? What if Wordsworth had seized on Christian's account of the mutiny and turned it into an epic poem?

These tantalising speculations underlie the plot of The Grave Tattoo. Freak summer weather brings to the surface of a Lakeland bog a long-buried and well-preserved body.

The corpse's skin has tattoos characteristic of the South Seas. (McDermid does a very good corpse, incidentally. ) Simultaneously Jane Gresham, a struggling Wordsworth scholar, finds supporting documentary evidence of a possible lost poem suppressed by the poet's family after his death. She moves back to her family's Fellhead farm to pursue her research.

Jane's ex-boyfriend, a manuscript expert who has sold out to sex and mammon, is also on the trail, and so are assorted academics. A Wordsworth poem based on the mutiny could be worth millions of pounds as well as confer enormous scholarly kudos. A sub-plot involves Jane's protégée Tenille, teenage daughter of a London drug baron who is entangled in sexual abuse, arson and murder. Tenille, who shares with Jane a taste for Romantic poetry, goes on the run from police and takes refuge in the Lake District.

Meanwhile a forensic anthropologist and a hard-bitten police inspector probe the secrets of the bog body -- and indeed each other's bodies too. …

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