Sunday, June 25, 2017

Review of "A Place of Execution" by Val McDermid

This book is divided into two parts. In the first section, set in the early 1960s, a teenage girl disappears from a small English village and the police investigate. In the second section, set in 1998, a reporter writes a book about the mid-century incident.

In 1963, the tiny hamlet of Scardale in Derbyshire resembles a feudal town. The owner of the manor house, who functions as 'Lord of the Manor', controls the land on which Scardale residents farm and raise livestock. There are only a handful of surnames in Scardale, where everyone is related by blood and marriage.

Following the death of Scardale manor's longtime squire, a distant relative named Peter Hawkin becomes the new owner. Hawkin pursues and marries an attractive local widow, Ruth Carter, who has a pretty teenage daughter named Alison. One day, just before Christmas, 13-year-old Alison comes home from school, takes her sheepdog Shep out for a walk, and disappears.

Newly promoted Detective Inspector George Bennett is put in charge of the search for Alison, which he orchestrates with the help of the local constable, surrounding police forces, and a slew of volunteers. Before long the searchers find Shep tied up in the woods and come across an isolated, disturbed area that shows evidence of a struggle. Bennett surmises that Alison has been abducted - almost certainly by someone familiar with the area. So, with the help of his assistant, Detective Sergeant Tommy Clough, Bennett questions Alison's relatives and neighbors.

Scardale is an insular community that doesn't like cops, and the police have a hard time squeezing information out of the residents. Weeks go by with little progress, and Bennett - whose wife is pregnant with their first child - feels terrible for Alison's mother. As a result Bennett becomes a driven man: he gathers evidence; questions persons of interest; consults with other cops; develops theories; and so on. Bennett can hardly find a moment to go home, relax, and see his wife.

Eventually, a suggestion by the community octogenarian, Ma Lomas - who looks exactly like a fairy tale hag - leads the cops to a forgotten, long-abandoned mine. There, Bennett finds Alison's torn clothes and evidence she was raped. Though Alison's body hasn't been found, Bennett concludes that she's dead.

Bennett makes it his mission to find the killer, and continues to pursue the case. After some months, startling new evidence is found - which leads to an arrest and trial. All this is very hard on Bennett, who gets battered by the suspect's defense attorney (think of the OJ trial).

Afterwards, Bennett gets on with his life, refusing to speak with reporters and writers who want to relate their accounts of the case.

Thirty-five years later, Bennett is retired and living with his wife Anne, who suffers from arthritis. Their grown son, Paul, works in the international realm and is engaged to be married. A journalist named Catherine Heathcote happens to meet Paul, learns his father is DI George Bennett, and decides to write a book about the Alison Carter case. Paul convinces his father to be interviewed, and Heathcote goes to work.

Heathcote conducts a series of extensive interviews with Bennett, who takes her through the case step by step. The journalist also reads old newspaper articles; talks to people who lived in Scardale (the few who agree to speak to her); visits places related to the case; goes to Alison's old home; and looks up DS Tommy Clough, who left the police force long ago.

Over many months, Heathcote finishes her research and writes the book. She's just completed the initial manuscript - and brought it to Bennett to read - when the detective has a change of heart. He insists that Heathcote withdraw the book from publication, but offers no specific reasons. Bennett even offers to repay the entire advance himself.

Heathcote, who's shocked and bewildered, decides she has to know what's going on.....and proceeds to find out. Wow!! And that's all I can say.

The book is absorbing and suspenseful, and Val McDermid does an excellent job evoking the feel of a rural hamlet that's heavily inbred. A basic menu of physical characterstics is scattered among the residents, who have little ambition beyond working their land and taking care of their animals. The villagers shun strangers and drive out 'wrong-uns'.....who better not come back. Moreover, with almost no recreation, Scardale isn't a fun place to live - especially for young people.

Most of the story's characters are well-drawn, though I found it hard to distinquish among the people of the village, whose interrelationships are more complicated than calculus. I sympathized with DI Bennett, whose shifty, 'cover-his-ass' boss made sure to keep his distance from the investigation, in case it went sideways. And I liked DI Clough, whose rough exterior masks a caring soul. I also found Catherine Heathcote to be bright and likable.....and an excellent researcher (I imagine she mimics the author's skills in this area. LOL)

My one quibble: almost all the adult characters in the book seem to smoke incessantly, and there's too much blather about taking out cigarettes, offering them to each other, lighting up, and so on. Smoking in public places was more acceptable in the 1960s, but this still seems overdone.

All in all, an enjoyable mystery. Recommended to fans of the genre.

Rating: 3.5 stars


  1. I've liked almost everything McDermid wrote so I no doubt would like this. Thanks.