In the past few decades, tattoos have become more and more ‘mainstream.’ Of course as we’ll see, they’ve been around for a very long time, but it wasn’t really until more recent years that a lot of ‘regular’ people have been getting them. One of the things about tattoos is that they can be distinctive. Whether you like them or you don’t, they can give very clear clues as to a person’s identity, so it’s no wonder that when someone goes missing, one of the first things the police ask is whether that person has a tattoo or some other distinguishing mark. That’s also the case when someone is attacked; the cops almost always ask whether the assailant had a tattoo. Because tattoos have been woven into our culture for quite some time, it’s no surprise that we see them quite a lot in crime fiction. And sometimes they can be very useful.
For instance, a few of Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories hinge on Sherlock Holmes’ knowledge of tattoos. In The Red-Headed League, we meet Mr. Jabez Wilson, a pawn-shop owner who’s had some odd things happen to him. He decided to earn a little extra money by responding to an advertisement for an open position. The job, as he found out, involved copying the Encyclopaedia Britannica, and it was easy enough. Then one day he found his new employer’s business had abruptly closed. He wants Holmes to find out what’s going on, and Holmes is intrigued enough to agree. It turns out that Wilson has been used by a group of thieves who wanted to use his shop as a base for digging a tunnel into a nearby bank. In the scene where we meet Wilson, Holmes notes that Wilson has been in China. He knows that by the look of a tattoo just above Wilson’s wrist – it’s made in a way that Holmes knows is distinctively Chinese. There are other stories too (I’m thinking, for instance of The ‘Gloria Scott’) in which Holmes’ knowledge of tattoos comes in handy.
In Michael Connelly’s 9 Dragons, liquor store owner John Li is shot and LAPD cops Harry Bosch and Ignacio Ferras are called to the scene. Li’s wife doesn’t speak English, and Bosch and Ferras are not thoroughly familiar with the Chinese culture of that part of Los Angeles. So Detective David Chu, who’s associated with the LAPD’s Asian Gangs Unit (AGU) is called in to assist. He proves to be very useful in helping Bosch and Ferras make sense of the culture and of the payments that Li had been making to a member of a triad – a ‘protection’ group. When Bosch shows Chu a video of one of Li’s payoffs to the triad member, Chu notices something else about the man: a tattoo. The tattoo gives Chu some interesting information that leads the police to suspect that Li might have been shot by a member of a particular triad with connections in Hong Kong. Then everything changes when Bosch gets a call from his daughter Maddie, who lives in Hong Kong. She says she’s been kidnapped and Bosch is sure that it has something to do with his current investigation. He goes as quickly as he can to search for his daughter. In the end, Bosch finds out what happened to John Li and to Maddie, and how the two are connected.
Inspector Salvo Montalbano makes effective use of a tattoo for identification in Andrea Camilleri’s The Wings of the Sphinx. A young woman is found dead near a local landfill. She has no clothes or other identification, so no-one knows who she is. The only identifying feature that’s really distinctive about her is the tattoo of a sphinx moth on her left shoulder. Montalbano doesn’t recognise the tattoo, but he asks his friend Nicolò Zito, who works for Vigatà’s Free Channel, to help. Zito broadcasts the picture of the tattoo and before long, Montalbano and his team are able to link the victim to a group of young Eastern European women who’d come to Sicily to find jobs. He also links the case to corruption in a social service agency and to some odd thefts.
Peter Lovesey’s Bath CID chief Peter Diamond has a similar challenge in The Tooth Tattoo. The body of a young woman is found in a canal in Bath. Oddly enough, there’s a sense of déjà vu for Diamond; he and his partner Paloma Kean have recently been in Vienna where they saw a memorial to another young woman who was also killed and dumped in a canal. Both were Japanese music students, too. The second victim – the one found in Bath – has only one identifying feature: the tattoo of a musical note on one of her teeth. It’s also discovered that she was a fanatic ‘groupie’ of Staccati, a string quartet. Bit by bit, Diamond and his team trace the relationship between the string quartet and its mysterious history and the deaths of the two victims.
In Angela Savage’s short story The Teardrop Tattoos, we learn that tattoos can also tell stories. This one is about a woman who’s recently been released from prison after serving time for murder. She and her dog Sully are settled into an apartment not far from a child care facility where one day, she gets into an argument with one of the parents. When a complaint is later lodged against her for keeping a restricted-breed animal (Sully is a pit bull), the woman blames her antagonist at the child care facility and plots her revenge. As she does so, we learn exactly what happened that sent her to prison. We also learn what the meaning is of her teardrop tattoos.
Peter Robinson’s Cold Is the Grave is the story of what happens to Emily Riddle, daughter of Chief Constable Jeremiah ‘Jimmy’ Riddle. Emily has left home, and her parents become alarmed when her younger brother Benjamin discovers pornographic ‘photos of her on a website. Riddle is now desperate to find his daughter and he asks DCI Alan Banks to help. The idea is that if Banks goes as a civilian, he’ll draw less attention to a personal matter that Riddle wants very much to stay private. Riddle and Banks have had a rancourous relationship in the past, but Banks is a father too. So he reluctantly agrees to look into the matter. Banks’ search for Emily takes him into some very seamy parts of London and one of the things that helps him find out what happened to her is the fact that in the ‘photos Benjamin saw, she has a spider tattoo.
And that’s the thing about tattoos. They can be very helpful in identifying a person. So they often cut down on the time it takes to find out who an unknown victim is. And they can be very interesting personal statements. That’s part of why sleuths such as Robinson’s Annie Cabbot and Patricia Stoltey’s Sylvia Thorn have them. No wonder we see them in crime fiction.
Oh, did you notice one very famous tattooed sleuth I didn’t mention? Oh, come on - too easy!
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Tom Petty’s Into the Great Wide Open.