A Place of Execution, by Val McDermid

>> Sunday, August 20, 2017

TITLE: A Place of Execution
AUTHOR: Val McDermid

PAGES: 480
PUBLISHER: St. Martin's

SETTING: 1960s and 1990s Derbyshire
TYPE: Mystery

Winter 1963: two children have disappeared off the streets of Manchester; the murderous careers of Myra Hindley and Ian Brady have begun. On a freezlng day in December, another child goes missing: thirteen-year-old Alison Carter vanishes from her town, an insular community that distrusts the outside world. For the young George Bennett, a newly promoted inspector, it is the beginning of his most difficult and harrowing case: a murder with no body, an investigation with more dead ends and closed faces than he'd have found in the anonymity of the inner city, and an outcome which reverberates through the years.

Decades later he finally tells his story to journalist Catherine Heathcote, but just when the book is poised for publication, Bennett unaccountably tries to pull the plug. He has new information which he refuses to divulge, new information that threatens the very foundations of his existence. Catherine is forced to re-investigate the past, with results that turn the world upside down.

A Greek tragedy in modern England, Val McDermid's A Place of Execution is a taut psychological thriller that explores, exposes and explodes the border between reality and illusion in a multi-layered narrative that turns expectations on their head and reminds us that what we know is what we do not know.
McDermid is one of the best-known mystery writers in the UK, but even though she's someone I really enjoy as a commentator and broadcaster (I'm always interested when she's on Radio 4, particularly when she's one of the participants in the wonderful Round Britain Quiz, where's she's awesome!), I'd never read one of her books. Until now. My book club decided to read A Place of Execution, which is one of her few stand-alone books.

On a cold, dark evening in December 1963, police in Buxton, Derbyshire receive a desperate call from a woman in the small village of Scardale. Her 13-year-old daughter left the house a few hours earlier to walk her dog, and hasn't returned. The mother has knocked on all the doors in the village but no one has seen her, and she's very concerned.

Detective Inspector George Bennett, newly promoted and one of very few university graduates in the Buxton police force, is sent over with his sergeant. All the organised search turns up is the dog young Alison Carter took with her on her walk -its muzzle taped shut with Elastoplast. It seems clear nothing good could have happened to Alison.

35 years later, journalist Catherine Heathcote has managed to get George Bennett to speak to her, the first time he'll tell the story of what ended up being a bit of a cause célebre. Everything's going great, until out of the blue, George writes her a letter demanding the book is cancelled. There's new information that means it should not be published, only he doesn't say what.

Despite what felt like a slightly saggy middle, I really enjoyed this book. It's an interesting mystery, with plenty of turns I didn't expect, and even when I guessed certain things (not bragging here -there are a couple of elements that are not difficult to guess), that didn't hamper my enjoyment.

The book shines in two areas: the atmosphere and the characterisation. 1960s Scardale is fantastic, a tiny village living in almost feudal times. It would have been easy for the portrayal of the taciturn, distrusful villagers, a combination of three families intermarrying for decades, to veer into the comic or the gothic, but McDermid steers clear of all that. These are strong-minded, independent people, used to making do with just themselves and coming together as a community. Don't make me wrong, there are some comic aspects here (I spend a fair bit of time in Buxton with my work, and it really tickled me to see how the Scardale villagers would speak about it. One would think the quiet, quaint little town was some sort of corrupt fleshpot, from the way they'd go on!), but McDermid does not make fun of them.

What felt really interesting and different, as well, was how McDermid portrays the police. It's an almost idealistic portrayal, and the wholesome characterisation of George Bennett and his Detective Sergeant, Tommy Clough (decent, honest men who truly care about finding Alison and works themselves to the bone to get justice for her) provides a much needed contrast to some of the more horrific revelations in the plot. At the same time, it's made clear that there are some institutional ways in which the police are very far from perfect (and some of the final revelations make it clear that part of the reason why certain things happened the way they did in the 60s was precisely because of the police's institutional attitudes -is that cryptic enough?).

I found very few negatives here. The main one, which I alluded to above, is that the middle section does go on a bit. Because of what's going on about then, there is a lot of repetition and going over the evidence again and again, and again. Part of the problem might have been that I was listening to the audiobook, so whereas if I'd been reading I could have sort of skimmed over the familiar ground if necessary, I was having to listen to every single detail. Still, that's not a big problem. Things liven up a fair bit soon enough, and I didn't mind the lull much at all.

MY GRADE: A strong B+.


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