The Crafty Writer Book Club is Open!

Welcome to the very first Crafty Writer Book Club discussion. As promised, we’ll be looking at Val McDermid’s The Grave Tattoo from a writer’s perspective. I’ll get the discussion rolling by posing a few questions or making comments relating to the following:

The Author

val-mcdermid-the-grave-tattooVal McDermid has published 25 crime novels since her debut, Report for Murder in 1987. She’s a multiple award-winning author, including the Portico Prize for The Grave Tattoo in 2006. Her The Wire in the Blood series has been made into a sucessful television series in the UK and USA. She also writes short stories with, most recently, a literary collection published by Flambard Press. I heard Val speak at a reading of her short story collection Stranded and she announced then that she was busy writing a crime novel that reflected her love for classical literature – this would become The Grave Tattoo. She wondered then how the ‘market’ would receive this breakaway from from her usual taut psychological thrillers and police procedurals.

For discussion:
Have you read any other Val McDermid books? If so, how does this one compare?

Genre

In any mystery thriller, there are certain genre expectations, including: a mystery to be solved; a hero or heroine; a side-kick or partner; a rival; a villain; conflict; obstacles and setbacks; clues; red herrings; motives; twists; resolution.

For a more detailed discussion see my post on mystery and thriller conventions. Although it’s angled towards writing for children and young people, the same principles apply to all writing in this genre.

For discussion:

  • Can you identify these genre conventions in ‘The Grave Tattoo’?
  • Did it meet your expectations of what a mystery thriller should be?
  • In what ways did it differ or present a twist on the standard form?
  • What did you think of the cross-genre element of history/literature/thriller?
  • Can you think of other recent books that fit into this mix?

Plot

I identified three major plot strands in The Grave Tattoo that all, in good mystery fashion, culminated in the climax:

  • Jane’s quest for the missing Wordsworth manuscript.
  • Fletcher Christian’s narrative of the ‘true story’ of the Bounty mutineers.
  • Tenille’s efforts to escape an abusive situation and flee from the police with Jane’s help.

In addition, there were a number of sub-plots:

  • River Wilde’s quest to identify the Bog Body.
  • Ewan Rigston’s investigation into the old people’s deaths.
  • River and Ewan’s love story.
  • Jane and Jake’s anti-love story.
  • Dan’s philanderings.
  • The repeated attempts on Jane’s life.
  • Jake and Caroline’s plot to steal the Wordsworth manuscript.
  • Jane’s fraught relationship with her brother and his genealogy project.

For discussion:

  • Considering the three main plot strands, how did McDermid structure the novel around them?
  • Other books in the literary/history/mystery genre tend to jump between two time periods with the result of splitting the narrative into almost two different books. How did McDermid manage to dip into the past without losing the forward momentum of the contemporary narrative? Do you think she succeeded?
  • Considering all the plot lines, do you think any of the sub-plots threatened to take over the main plot line?
  • Were there any plot lines that you considered were not developed to their potential?
  • Were there any plot lines that you felt should have been omitted from the book?

Characterisation

Jane Gresham is of course the heroine. However, there are a number of other important characters including: Tenille, Tenille’s dad, Donna Blair (the inspector), Dan, Matthew, Jane’s Mum and Dad, Jake, Caroline, River, Ewan, the curator of the Wordsworth museum, the elderly victims, members of the family under investigation, Wordsworth, and Fletcher Christian.

For discussion:

  • What function do these various characters play in the narrative?
  • In your opinion, which of these characters (including Jane) were well-drawn and which not?
  • Did you feel that any characters had the potential to supercede Jane as the primary character?
  • How did McDermid deal with this threat?
  • In your opinion, was it successful?
  • What did you think of the revelation, choice and motivation of the ‘villain’?

Style

In my opinion, McDermid writes in an engaging, energised, popularly commercial style, appropriate for the mystery genre. It’s gratifying that she didn’t succumb to pretentions of literary grandeur in a book dealing with William Wordsworth. I thought her voicing of Christian and Wordsworth particularly strong (perhaps, because at this point, she shifted into first person), as well as her voicing (and characterisation) of Tenille. Her intimate third person POV in the Tenille scenes were the strongest in the book. The voicing of the academics was less convincing – particularly Jane’s discussions with her supervisor. I thought she did particularly well by taking the killer / stalker’s POV without giving away his identity too early. Yet I thought her intimate third person POV of Jane, not as engaging as it could have been. I wonder why? Personally, I found River a much more compelling guide.

For discussion:

  • What are the strengths and weaknesses of McDermid’s writing style?
  • How did this contribute to the plot?

Market Success

The Grave Tattoo has not been as successful as some of the other McDermid books. Consider these reviews:

For discussion:

  • Which of these reviews do you agree or disagree with? Why?
  • In one paragrah describe the book’s primary strengths and weaknesses.
  • Which Booker prize nominee would you like to discuss in Book Club?

    View Results

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markus-zusak-the-book-thiefThis was the first in the Crafty Writer’s Book Club. Please feel free to leave comments and contribute to the discussion in the comments section below.

Next month we will be looking at Australian writer Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief, set in Nazi Germany in 1939, with a nine-year-old heroine. While of course you are free to buy or borrow it from wherever you choose, if you buy it from the Crafty Writer Bookshop (an Amazon affiliate) by clicking on the book cover, we will earn a small commission and help to keep the Crafty Writer Book Club online.

Happy reading and writing!

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Related posts:

  1. Crafty Writer’s Book Club Launch
  2. One Week to Book Club …
  3. Book Club: The Book Thief
  4. Book Club: The Interpretation of Murder
  5. Book Club Reminder

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20 comments on “The Crafty Writer Book Club is Open!

  1. Hi Fiona,

    Phew You’ve certainly given me something to think about here.

    Although I initially found the book hard to get into I ended up really enjoying it.

    I didn’t find the Fletcher Christian parts that believable but this didnt stop me reading on.

    I wanted to know more about Jane’s brother and how their relationship had become so bad.

    I liked Tenille and her whole subplot.

    The bog body and River’s part in the story seemed not right somehow. I’m not sure why. They feel incomplete or missing something. Sorry don’t know why I feel that. Although I found River more believable than Jane herself.

    I need to think about some of the other questions you raise.

    Thanks Fiona I can see this is going to help me.

  2. Fiona Veitch Smith on said:

    Hi Sue. I agree with you that the River / Bog Body / Ewan sub-plot was not fully developed. I think that it actually had the potential to be the main plot – in my opinion it was the most intriguing. I was also waiting for River’s alliance with Jane to cause conflict in her relationship with Ewan, which McDermid never followed through on. The brother bit I found odd too. Again, hinting at something much deeper, but to develop it further would have been too complex for the narrative framework. I think one of my problems with Jane’s characterisation was that she was rather passive. She responded rather than acted. Tenille was active. River was active and even Matthew was active. I also thought that Dan’s characterisation and motivation a little thin. How about you?

  3. Karen M on said:

    Fiona, this was an eye-opener. I enjoyed the read, even though I charged through it too fast to really appreciate it, I think! I’ve never read this author before, but kept thinking I was in a Barbara Erskine story (female academic digging into the past)and found myself waiting for the ghosts to appear. I agree with some of the other comments that Jane seemed to be surrounded by people who were more interesting than her, although of course she was the one who connected them all. One picky thing that I found irritating was the number of names that began with J – Jane, Judy, Jake, John, Jimmy, Jenny.
    I definitely learned something from the way characters were paired to create contrast or conflict, eg Jane and Tenille, River and Ewan; also how that was emphasised through the contrasting voices.
    I would have liked to see Jane and her brother’s conflict resolved more definitely. I loved the setting of the Lake district, especially as seen through Tenille’s eyes.
    This is much harder then my usual book group, and who’s doing the coffee?

  4. Fiona Veitch Smith on said:

    Didn’t notice all the J’s! Something to watch out for. I’ve just written a short play where the lovers are called Devon and Dawn. Too similar on reflection. Good point about the character pairings. What did you think about the choice of baddy? Do you think Dan’s journey was well-handled? I though there needed to be more about his motivations. Now Caroline as the killer … Dan could still have been on the pay-roll and Jane would still feel betrayed, but imagine a Jane / Caroline showdown with Jake in the mix. Frankly, I wasn’t satisfied with Dan as the villain.

  5. I agree about Dan.
    I couldn’t work out why I was unsatisfied with Dan as the villain. I assumed it was just that I hadn’t suspected him until near the reveal. On reflection I can see it was more than that. He was really hazy as a character and not believable as the baddy.
    Caroline was really nasty and I could have believed her capable of going to almost any lengths to get what she wanted.

  6. Fiona Veitch Smith on said:

    I suspected Dan when she’d made a big deal about him being bald then when Tenille saw the killer he was wearing a hat. Yeah, his motivations were very vague. Caroline on the other hand was deliciously evil!

  7. Karen M on said:

    I felt the same about Dan’s motivations. I felt much more involved with Jake’s journey to baddie-dom with its conflicts of feeling subservient to Caroline, still admiring Jane a bit, etc. He made a more interesting villain for me. I thought I must have missed something about Dan because I read it too fast, but maybe it just wasn’t there.
    Now off to check out my own baddies!

  8. Fiona Veitch Smith on said:

    You’re right about Jake having a good journey – which I felt wasn’t completed. But he might have been too obvious as the killer. He was meant to be a Red Herring. But the Caroline Jake pairing was brilliant. She could have stepped in to do the killing because she didn’t trust that Jake would do it.

  9. Karen M on said:

    You really wanted it to be Caroline, didn’t you!

  10. Fiona Veitch Smith on said:

    Yes dammit yes! But it just shows that McDermid has managed to give us a good selection of potential candidates and red herrings. On another tack, let’s talk about how McDermid managed to hold the historical and contemporary narratives together. Books like Labyrinth jump between two time periods as the modern heroine explores the past. How did McDemid handle it? Do you prefer this style or the Kate Mosse one?

  11. I have to say I prefer the Kate Mosse (Labyrinth) handling of the past. I found it more readable. I found McDermid’s approach dull and dry at time. It felt like it was just shoved in there to supply information to justify the plot. I found myself skimming over the Fletcher Christian bits so that I could get back to the real story.

  12. Fiona Veitch Smith on said:

    At least in this one there was no danger of the historical narrative taking over the contemporary. Perhaps that’s as McDermid intended it. Just the short snippets of the letters allowed us to take a breather from the overarching narrative. And, towards the end, the two narratives did begin to intertwine with Chrisian and Jane in mortal danger at the same time. But I was disappointed that she didn’t take the historical narrative to a conclusion. I wasn’t happy with the DNA inconclusive verdict.

  13. Karen M on said:

    I worked on a story for a course that involved intertwining a past and present narrative, and initially tried using journal entries for the past one. My tutor commented that it would have been far more lively for the reader to be able to read actual scenes rather than a report on them in a journal. I think she was right and I have to admit I skipped over the Fletcher sections in this book. It would have made for an extremely long story if they had been written as scenes as well though. The journal allowed us to get the facts without having to worry too much about lots of extra characters with all their dialogue etc. The problem with my story was that my ‘past’ narrative was the one where all the interesting stuff was happening and deserved a more starring role. At least with Fletcher’s story it is one that most readers would already be familiar with to some extent.

  14. Fiona Veitch Smith on said:

    That’s the problem with split narratives – when one is more interesting than the other. I found that with Labyrinth. I felt Mosse skimmed over the best parts of the historical narrative to make room for the contemporary. I would have much rather had the whole book set in history. But that’s just my thing. In Da Vinci Code, Although I dislike the book as a whole, I thought he managed to integrate the historical into the contemporary without splitting the narrative. Same with Rule of Four – another book I didn’t like! So what’s the moral of the story: split narratives are hell to write!

  15. Alison B on said:

    Like several of you I ended up skipping the historical journal bits, for me they detracted from the story. I enjoyed the story, I certainly liked Tenille, and began to suspect Dan after Jane was pushed in the water. I enjoyed the budding romance between River and Ewan – that’s a sub-plot that could become the basis of a novel of its own! The one real gripe I have is the references to both St Catherine’s House and the Family Records Centre when doing geneaology research. The FRC took over from St Catherine’s several years ago.

  16. Fiona Veitch Smith on said:

    How many years is several? Perhaps this was written before the changeover and never corrected. I once wrote a short story in which Camilla Parker Bowles was referred to as the ‘royal mistress’, by the time it was published the mistress was the wife! Some readers took exception :)

    One thing I don’t think we’ve adequately looked at is why Jane is perceived by most of us as a ‘weak’ character, and how the novel managed to do so well despite this. Any thoughts?

  17. Meg Stokes on said:

    I wonder if Jane is perceived as ‘weak’ because she is such a ‘nice’ person. Does she have any faults? She’s rather bland. I believe that the novel did so well in spite of that because it is the other characters who are strong and quite passionate, either about each other or about their desires. They are the ones who drive the story forward. Jane sits in the calm at the centre of the action. I have to agree with Dan not being particularly plausible as the killer. The only thing which stood out for me was his affair with Jimmy. I wondered whether this showed his untrustworthy nature, considering he was in a relationship with Harry at the beginning of the novel. On the whole I enjoyed the book – I’ve not read any Val McDermid novels before – although I do find ‘time-slip’ narratives hard going. I too skimmed the Christian Fletcher Diary.

  18. Fiona Veitch Smith on said:

    YOu should really give the Wire in the Blood novels a go. They’re not time slip and are well crafted psychological thrillers. I thought Jane had potential as a tenacious heroine when she tracked down and confronted Tenille’s dad, but McDermid didn’t build on that platform, except to use the gangster connection as a red herring – was T’s dad trying to silence Jane about the killing? I suppose Jane’s confrontation with Jake could have been seen as ‘strong’ when she didn’t fall for his schemes, but again, it didn’t rise to much in her. Poor Jane! And who was hoping that Ewan might go for Jane and Jake for River?

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