by Rana Asfour
Great piece of news: Scottish crime writer Val McDermid is to chair the 2017-judging panel for the Wellcome Book Prize. The panel also includes figures from the world of academia, literature, science and the media.
Worth £30,000, the Wellcome Book Prize celebrates the best new books that engage with an aspect of medicine, health or illness. According to McDermid what really sets this prize apart is ‘its acknowledgement of the importance of a really good read, whether that comes in the form of fiction or non-fiction’.
Incidentally, the author’s book ‘The Grave Tattoo’ (2003), a murder mystery set in England’s Lake District, also known as the Lakes or Lakeland, a mountainous region North-West England had found its way onto the BookFabulous Summer 2016 Reading List.
The book revolves around the discovery of a heavily tattooed body in the Lake District. Forensics soon reveal that this is no present day murder but one committed 200 years ago. Based on several observations, speculations arise whether the body could be linked to the old rumour that Fletcher Christian, mutinous First Mate on the Bounty, had secretly managed to return to England. And if so, why was he murdered?
Scholar Jane Gresham wants to find out. She believes that the ‘Lakeland laureate and head honcho of the Romantic poets', William Wordsworth, a school friend of Christian's, may have sheltered the fugitive and turned his tale into an epic poem– which has since disappeared. Naturally, if found it is worth millions. However, until that happens, it seems that death is hard on Gresham's heels and the mystery is putting many lives on the line. The bodies start to pile up and it becomes a race against time to prevent others from meeting with the same deadly fate.
Running alongside this main story is a side plot involving Jane’s East End estate neighbour, Tenille, who is wanted by the London police for the murder of her aunt’s boyfriend Geno. Tenille is thirteen years old and motherless. What she has in common with Jane is a love of poetry managing ‘to grasp the significance of the writings of Wordsworth, Coleridge, Shelley and De Quincy with an ease that had taken Jane herself a decade of close study to achieve’.
East End estate where almost nobody had any form of legitimate employment, where kids ran wild day and night, and where there were more used condoms and hypodermic needles than blades of grass' - Jane Gresham, 'The Grave Tattoo' by Val McDermid
So, when Jane heads off to the Lakes to research the recent discovery, Tenille finds herself with no choice but to follow her in the hopes that Jane might help her clear her name.
This is a wonderful book choice for those who enjoy a light dose of history mixed in with their murder mysteries. I would say that those who enjoyed reading ‘The De Vinci Code’ would probably enjoy this one too. The mystery is engaging and the writing fits in well with the novel’s beautiful landscape so that a drive in Lakeland is not just a drive for Jane Gresham, who grew up there, but ‘poetry in motion’.
All landscapes hold their own secrets. Layer on layer, the past is buried beneath the surface. Seldom irretrievable, it lurks, waiting for human agency or meteorological accident to force the skeleton up through flesh and skin back into the present. Like the poor, the past is always with us' - Opening lines of 'The Grave Tattoo' by Val McDermid