Beyond the girl with the dragon tattoo: Tattoos in crime and detective narratives

Posted by Bethan Hirst - Tuesday, 10 Nov 2020


‘What are the best tattoos on page or screen?’  With our shared interest in detective narratives it was never going to be a quick answer to that question. Moving from Cape Fear, Memento to A series of unfortunate events, via Louisa May Alcott and Jeffery Deaver, made for an enlivening conversation but not one Kate and I expected to take us on this fascinating journey. But the conversation didn’t go away and we kept adding to the list. Before too long we realised we had the gem of an idea. With support from Manchester University Press and our contributors our collection, on tattoos in crime and detective narratives, came into being. It’s exciting that our book now has a life and our contributors’ rich and detailed work is being read and shared. Winning this year’s International Crime Fiction Association Book Prize for the best non-fiction book on crime fiction was a great highlight.

Whilst tattoos have enduring associations with deviance, criminality and punishment, their practice and art has become increasingly mainstream. As tattoos and tattooing practice have returned to popular culture, prior connections to deviance, criminality and otherness have shifted and been remade. Despite this, tattoos continue to evoke powerful emotions and reactions; the deep-rooted association with deviance and criminality remains hard to shake off. We were interested in investigating the literature, tv and film that plays with these associations – that marks and remarks crime and detective narratives. In doing so, we found that tattoos and tattooing practice is integral to crime and detective narratives and functions in reshaping and refashioning the genre. Focussing on two periods of tattoo renaissance our collection investigates how these marks make and remake the crime and detective genre, transform the tattoo into a narrative act, and explore how the experience of seeing a tattoo mirrors the act of detection.

What started as a passion project for us, quickly transformed into an interdisciplinary adventure with scholars from around the world. We made it integral to the project to draw together emerging and established talent to maximise the reach of the project and to give voice to emerging critics. We took our time with the collection. We wrote an introductory essay to ground our research, made the essays available to contributors and encouraged contributors to respond to one another’s work, so that we viewed the project as a whole. We quickly realised we wanted our focus to be broader than literature – to give our contributors the opportunity to engage with contemporary films and tv as well.

We knew that we wanted a striking cover for our collection but it was really difficult to pin down an image that could do justice to this visual theme whilst maintaining the criminological focus. We considered and rejected hundreds of images – from stills from iconic films such as Memento to uploaded Instagram images. We finally alighted on the work of Kim Rense at Papanatos tattoos (, as we both loved his irreverent style. His work – Seven deadly sins – is the perfect cover and his collage approach to building up the image reminded us of Ray Bradbury’s The illustrated man. We also think it’s a neat metaphor for the collection itself –pieces unique in themselves but together make a whole.

Whilst a number of the texts will be familiar the collection has some surprises with unexpected approaches to established authors such as Louisa May Alcott, Herman Melville, and Arthur Conan Doyle. “There is a wonderful selection of different types of texts explored and the coverage feels comprehensive and as if it opens up and expands on a very fertile field of study” (International Crime Fiction Association Book Prize). The section on tattoos and marks in children’s literature is a unique focus. The appeal of this approach was evident right from the off. MUP were utterly supportive, with our proofreader kindly taking the time to tell us how much she enjoyed the work, and we both noticed that family and friends were genuinely interested in this aspect of our research.

What now? The collection has demonstrated what a rich vein of research there is in tattooing, criminology and narrative studies. We didn’t have space to include so much of our original research and so we may return to this in later projects – killing floor narratives, ink and contemporary literature. For now, we’re thinking about what would be a fitting  mark to celebrate our book prize and when Kim Rense might have an appointment free…

Dr Kate Watson, Independent Scholar

Professor Katharine Cox, Head of the Department of Humanities and Law, Bournemouth University


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