The Grave Tattoo by Val McDermid

With slumming novelists creeping up from one direction and rising mystery writers barreling down from the other, the intersection where literary respectability vies for right of way with genre craftsmanship is a busy place. Few get through without a dent or scratch, and the total crash is not unheard of.

That’s because competent genre writing is much harder than it looks from inside the hothouse of literature. On the other hand, mastering the paint-by-numbers conventions of a subcategory of mystery fiction guarantees no skill at the freestyle narrative of the character-driven story.

Val McDermid and John Banville, both British, one each from the genre and the literary sides, gracefully negotiate this dangerous intersection in recent novels. And though they may be coming from opposite directions, they arrive in much the same place.

Beneath Banville’s decision to pen his first genre novel under a pseudonym may rest a simple explanation, but if so it resists ready discernment. Distaste, perhaps. After all, Banville won the Man Booker Prize, Britain’s top literary award, for his novel The Sea (2005), only the most recent accolade in a distinguished career as a serious novelist.

Yet neither Banville nor his publisher has made the least effort to conceal the great writer’s identity from association with this nicely turned, if at times lumbering, medico-religious thriller. To the contrary, Banville’s authorship has been bruited about as though in expectation his literary renown will boost sales rather than otherwise.

Banville sets his intricate tale of murder, greed and exploitation in the 1950s. Quirke, a dissolute Dublin coroner, “in the foothills of his forties,” is quietly drinking himself to death in the aftermath of his wife’s death in childbirth. And he was really in love with her sister, who married Malachy Griffin, Quirke’s adoptive brother. The two men, bound together by family, have only the prickliest relationship.

Quirke’s life takes a turn toward intrigue when, after a few too many drinks at an office party, he discovers Malachy, an obstetrician, altering the death certificate of a young woman who died giving birth. Like any good genre hero, Quirke starts asking questions, which, of course, gets other people killed. Quirke himself is set upon by thugs and severely beaten, but he does not stop his pursuit of truth.

Before long, he’s uncovered a nasty conspiracy involving illegitimate babies, corrupt church and government officials in Dublin and Boston, and deep family entanglements.

In summary this all sounds very genre, but Banville doesn’t write it that way. Instead, he presents his story with the narrative patience and the gorgeously rendered detail of an especially well-done middlebrow domestic drama. He might easily have made this simply a refined soap opera of middle-class Dublin Catholic life in the 1950s, and found plenty of grateful readers.

But Banville, respectful of the demands of the mystery novel for specific satisfactions of suspense, thrills and chills, is scrupulous in dropping the gruesome murder here, the bloody clue there. Just when you think Banville is losing his way in the thickets of personal psychology, he sends a couple of thugs to rough up the hero, or a sociopathic adoptive father to shake the brains out of a poor little orphan baby.

For most of the book Banville keeps up a nice tension between the literary compulsion to fully develop every character and the genre requirement to uncover the plot and identify the killers and their motives. He wobbles now and again, lingering longer than needed in a particular character’s point of view, but never to the point of exhausting the reader’s patience.

Val McDermid has been producing mysteries since the 1970s, when she started out as a lesbian-feminist writer with a lesbian-feminist reporter as her series sleuth. More than two-dozen books later, including Wire in the Blood, she has long since gained the attention of discerning readers outside the mystery ranks. In her latest, The Grave Tattoo, McDermid writes with a serene confidence that allows her to delve deeply into the lives of any number of credible characters, hooking us on their personal, professional and romantic conflicts before introducing even the first scent of blood.

Struggling Wordsworth scholar Jane Gresham is waiting tables in London to make ends meet when a tattooed “bog body” turns up in the Lake District where she grew up. The body, also dating from the 17th century, bears tattoos suggesting a sojourn in the South Seas, reviving a local legend that Fletcher Christian, leader of the Bounty mutineers, returned home from Pitcairn Island before he died.

Gresham has a theory that Christian shared his story with childhood chum Wordsworth, who turned it into an epic poem. Now she takes a break from her university teaching assistantship to go home and try to find the lost document in the family papers of longtime Lake District families. Almost as soon as she gets home, people start dying under suspicious circumstances.

Meanwhile, Tenille, a 13-year-old from the tough London neighborhood where Gresham rents a bed-sit, runs afoul of police after her aunt’s troublesome boyfriend is murdered. Beguiled by Tenille’s love of poetry, Gresham befriended the girl, who now follows her to the country and becomes involved in hiding from police and helping search for the lost manuscript

Others searching for the valuable document include Gresham’s charming, greedy ex-boyfriend, while River Wilde, a beautiful and ambitious young pathologists, has taken an interest in producing a television series about the bog body.

Some of these elements veer toward the cartoonish, but McDermid mixes them all together with a deft touch. From the business practices of London gangsters to the back-stabbings of academic allies to the small-mindedness of rural folk, McDermid gets everything just right, with just enough atmosphere, character development and period detail to lend weight to the gaudier pleasures of who killed whom and why. Throughout the narrative McDermid maintains a nice tone of realism.

The Grave Tattoo, though very different in tone, juggles much the same weight of character development vs. genre custom as Banville does in Christine Falls. Call it a tie. McDermid writes with a bit more speed, Banville with a bit more heft, but both deliver satisfying mysteries with characters always fascinating, if not always likable.