He Met a Girl Out There With a Tattoo Too*

TattoosIn 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.



Filed under Andrea Camilleri, Angela Savage, Arthur Conan Doyle, Michael Connelly, Patricia Stoltey, Peter Lovesey, Peter Robinson

24 responses to “He Met a Girl Out There With a Tattoo Too*

  1. Yes, I do like the way you’ve managed to avoid that most famous of tattooed women investigators… especially as it’s not one of my favourite reads.
    Tattoos are very popular with the prison population, of course, which is another reason why they appear in crime fiction. Russian inmates, in particular, seem to record the complete history of their crimes and allegiances through their tattoos. The British film ‘Eastern promises’, starring the two equally gorgeous Viggo Mortensen and Vincent Cassel, is about the Russian mob and uses tattoos quite effectively to further the plot.

    • Marina Sofia – It’s interesting that you would mention the connection between tattoos and prison culture. It really is a form of storytelling there – well, personal storytelling. And yes, it makes it even more logical that there’d be mentions of tattoos in crime fiction. They really do tell a lot about a person. And thank you for reminding me of Eastern Promises. I thought that was a fabulous movie. And Viggo Motensen is indeed quite yummy.
      And about that other fictional tattooed sleuth? Ah, she gets enough press.

  2. Sometime last year, I read The Tattoo Murder Case, a vintage mystery by Japanese author, Akimitsu Takagi. In that case, there is a woman with a full body tattoo. The history of tattoos in Japan is interesting.

    • Tracy – Oh, that sounds interesting! I really should read more Japanese crime fiction than I have thus far. I’ve heard that tattooing in Japan is a really distinctive kind of culture. Thanks for the suggestion.

  3. I kept waiting for that other famous tattooed person to show up in your piece; congratulations on not draggin’ her into it… 😉

  4. I also salute your restraint, Margot! And thanks as always for the shout out.

    Tattoos play a major part in John Burdett’s Bangkok-based thriller Bangkok Tattoo although I can’t go into much detail without the risk of spoilers. It’s not my favourite of Burdett’s Bangkok series, mind you. I recommend Bangkok 8 as the better book.

    I also noticed when watching Skyfall on the weekend that Bond used the tattoo on a woman’s wrist to identify which Macau brothel she belonged to.

    There’s also a famous real life murder case in Australia involving a tattooed arm regurgitated from inside a shark – proof truth can be stranger than fiction: http://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shark_Arm_case

    • Angela – It’s my pleasure to mention your work. It’s a great story. And thanks for the tip about Burdett’s work. I should familiarise myself with it, methinks. I’m not surprised at the use of a tattoo to identify the brothel where one works. It’s efficient and it’s logical. I’ll admit I’m not the biggest of Bond fans, but every once in a while they include interesting things like that.
      Thanks too for sharing that story. Strange but true indeed!!! Folks, do check it out.

      Oh, and as for my restraint? Some stories have already had more than enough hype.

  5. kathy d.

    OK. Fine. No mention of that girl with the dragon tattoo.
    Interestingly, the NY Times recently published a review of “Bodies of Subversion: A Secret History of Women and Tattoo,” which is being updated and republished. It tells the history of tattoed women in the U.S.
    Nowadays, it says, more women than men get tattooes, 23% as against 19%.
    I find this fascinating as it’s been a secret wish of mine for decades, although the health concerns come into play. I have women friends with beautiful tattooes; it’s part of youth culture and self-expression.
    As far as a clue in murder mysteries, of course it’s an excellent means of identification of a victim, perhaps a culprit, too.

    • Kathy – That is really fascinating about women vs men when it comes to tattoos. I had no idea… I agree with you that some tattoos are very skillfully done. I haven’t got any myself but I’ve seen some I’ve thought were beautiful. For some people, it really is as you say an important form of self-expression. And yes, when it comes to detection, they certainly can be valuable ways to identify a victim or a culprit.

  6. Margot: I consider Lisbeth one of the most memorable characters I have encountered in crime fiction in the last decade. Her tattoos were very much a part of her identity rather than an affection or desire to be with it.

    I am probably most curious about the photo. I did not notice an attribution. Could it be of a part of Margot that has remained hidden until today?

    • Bill – Nope. That tattoo is not a part of me at all. Promise. I wanted a good ‘photo of a tattoo and found a magazine with some great ones. And yes, Lisbeth’s tattoos are a very important part of her identity. They aren’t superficial at all and they do have real meaning for her.

  7. Tattoos in crime fiction would never occur to me but these are such fine examples of their role in murder mystery. A tattoo is like a calling card, one of many idiosyncratic aspects of a suspect or criminal. I can’t help identifying tattoos with villains, as in the movies. On another note, I have often wondered why tattoos are popular among rural folk in India, both men and women, who have names or religious symbols like Om or Swastika etched on their forearms. The urban tattoo has its own distinctness.

    • Prashant – That’s very interesting about the popularity of tattoos in India’s rural communities. And you’re right that different tattoos have different meanings in different places. I think different tattoos mean different things among different cultures and sub-cultures. It really is fascinating to think of those different kinds of meaning.

  8. Patti Abbott

    Whereas once they were rare, now they are rather commonplace. Not quite the identifier they once were.

    • Patti – Tattoos are definitely more common now than they used to be. So you’re right, they’re probably not the unique identifying trait they used to be. Still, police depend on them a lot to find out who victims and culprits are.

  9. Col

    They are definitely more mainstream now, but I still associate them as a badge from prison or a gang affiliation.
    Nice hat-tip to Connelly’s book, the only example I have read, other than the unmentioned one!

    • Col – Interesting how people make those associations about tattoos, even though as you say they’re so mainstream now. One of the things I like about 9 Dragons is the way Bosch has to work within a community he doesn’t exactly understand. It puts him a bit out of his element and that adds to the suspense I think.

  10. I was to chicken to get a tattoo myself, so I had my character Sylvia Thorn do it instead. 😀 Thanks for the slipping in that mention, Margot.

  11. kathy d.

    I have wanted for years — a small tattoo, a rose, butterfly, rainbow, something artistic and natural — but was too chicken to do it, and worried about the health risks.
    As I said, I’ve seen women in my city with beautiful tattooes, friends and just people passing by on the street. Once, in a very interesting, yet perplexing situation, a volunteer attorney represented a few people arrested at a protest. She showed up in court wearing a conservative gray suit, with a rose vine tattoo up one leg, continuing up one side of her neck and her face — with small roses here and there. My friends were somewhat mortified, but the case was dismissed — and the tattooed lawyer was cheered.

    • Kathy – What a great tattoo story! I agree that it is definitely becoming more and more common for people to have tattoos. Even people who wouldn’t have dreamed of it a few decades ago are now sporting them. It’s an interesting sociological phenomenon.

  12. It’s amazing what you find in Sherlock Holmes stories. I first heard of the KKK via one of them. Conan Doyle was clearly a man with a fascination of the unusual.

    • Sarah – Oh, I agree. I didn’t know when I started reading Conan Doyle how interested he was in the unusual, the occult and so on, but he was. I’ll admit I’m less familiar with Conan Doyle’s non-Holmes work, but I’ll bet it’s interesting.

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