A Place of Execution
‘The only thing he might have expected to find but hadn’t was a bible. On the other hand, Scardale was so cut off from the rest of the world, they might still be worshipping the corn goddess here. Maybe the missionaries had never made it this far.’
Val McDermid was an author that I hadn’t read before. I was looking for a solid, reliable thriller that I could listen to whilst commuting to work, and as I had heard so many praise her work, I thought I would give ‘A Place of Execution’ a go. The novel is set in the isolated Derbyshire hamlet of Scardale in 1963, where thirteen-year-old Alison Carter disappears one cold December evening. A feeling of unease on behalf of Detective Inspector George Bennett deepens upon encountering a worrying series of clues and the rugged intransience of the wary villagers. The book is separated into two halves – the initial investigation into what turns out to be a no-body murder, and the events prompted by the publication of a book recounting the case some thirty-five years later.
As would be almost obligatory in a book titled thus, McDermid’s portrayal of a sense of place is mesmeric. Scardale is imagined with lonely, bleak desolation, all steep valley sides and thin-soiled grimness. The sense of isolation is palpable, and McDermid treats us to a first visit to the village via night-shrouded, winding B-road. It is the perfect setting for a crime novel and contrasts beautifully with the CID corridors and senior officers of Buxton police station.
McDermid certainly isn’t afraid to confront her readers with a visceral storyline. The horror of a missing child is compounded by several gruesome clues found early on, and some of the details revealed further into the book reach a level of depravity rarely found even amongst the crime genre. Nevertheless, this detail never feels gratuitous and does serve in both furthering the plot and in making George Bennett’s cause feel all the more noble.
I also liked the way that the book was structured. Having the two parts in 1963 and 1997 takes cognisance of the fact that these cases tend to reverberate far beyond the trial and verdict. They affect not only case law and precedence, but the lives of officers, witnesses, jurors, and the indicted. The differences in policing were put across, as were the attitudinal changes to issues such as child protection and the death penalty.
There were a few irks, although whether some of these were in the text or as a result of my listening to the audiobook (not my usual method of consumption) I’m not sure. There seemed to me to be a near-constant reference to the main characters smoking. I get it – it was the sixties – but it almost presents as a nervous tic on McDermid’s behalf. Officers smoking and having cups of tea might well have been the norm, but surely there were some exceptions. When, finally, we get into the second portion of the book and into the 1990s when journalist Catherine Heathcote is writing a book about the Alison Carter Case, I was relieved at the thought that NHS education campaigns might have worked their magic and that the smokers might have been consigned to huddled cliques outside restaurant doors. No such luck – the stress of investigating the case and the revelations that come with it are enough to turn Catherine back to cigarettes and into a sixties-esque fug of smoke.
The only other minor critique I had was the simplicity of some of the characters. George Bennett is certainly likeable enough as the investigating DI but there is no devil in him, no quirks or idiosyncrasies, and his having a pregnant wife at the time of the investigation feels rather contrived. Likewise, I found it difficult to get under the skin of Catherine Heathcote. Her transformation from hardboiled journalist to shocked stakeholder is via a straight road – she could have been substituted with any number of fictionalised hacks with little or nothing lost from the book.
Overall, though, this was a moody, well-paced and hugely atmospheric crime thriller. McDermid brings to life the fear and introspection that families must have felt when children were disappearing during the Moors Murders. She examines a community’s response to such horror and asks of us what we would be willing to do to protect our families.
*Thanks for reading, folks. Find my other reviews below*
Matthew Richardson is a writer of short stories. His work has featured in Gold Dust magazine, Literally Stories, Near to the Knuckle, McStorytellers, Penny Shorts, Soft Cartel, Whatever Keeps the Lights On, and Shooter magazine. He is a doctoral student at the University of Dundee, a lucky husband, and a proud father.
Not necessarily in that order