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A FAIR TRIAL ... WITHOUT A BODY?
A Place of Execution - Val McDermid
Member Name: Fantasybeliever
A Place of Execution - Val McDermid
Advantages: Chilling, gripping, compelling story
Disadvantages: All the characters smoke like chimneys!
I buy a lot of books from charity shops – after all they’re cheap, accessible, tend to have an impressive range of genres available and at the same time you’re supporting a good cause in a way that offers a benefit to you as well as the organisation concerned. I found myself in the local Oxfam shop a couple of months ago. Recently refurbished, it holds a remarkable collection of books, organised by author making it easy to see what’s on offer. I was delighted and surprised to see an early Val McDermid book on sale for the princely sum of £1.50 and in almost pristine condition, so of course, I had to have it.
This is my fourth Val McDermid experience and sometimes when you’ve read a few books by an individual author in quick succession there’s a danger of becoming bored with their style, tone or formulaic approach to writing. Nothing could be further from the truth in this case!
McDermid became the first woman from a Scottish state school to be accepted at St Hilda’s in Oxford to read English and went on to become a young and enthusiastic journalist. She always wanted to be a writer and struggled as most do, to become accepted by a publisher. It was only as recently as 1991 that she was able to give up her “day job” to concentrate on the work that is her passion – writing. Her novels have won international acclaim and she has won a number of high profile awards including the LA Times Book of the Year Award in 2001 for “A Place of Execution”, the novel I’m about to review. Further information on the author can be found in my earlier reviews featuring the same writer.
~~~THE BOOK, THE STORY, THE CHARACTERS~~~
My interest was immediately piqued from the summary on the back cover where we’re informed that the story is about child disappearances at around the same time as the Myra Hindley/Ian Brady reign of terror had begun. A 13 year old girl (Alison Carter) has disappeared from a remote Derbyshire village in December 1963. Detective Inspector George Bennett, young and ambitious, is put in charge of this case and throws himself into it with a passion and commitment that is sometimes beyond the call of duty. In my opinion, it is not spoiling the plot to inform you that the whole story encompasses an investigation that leads to the suspicion of murder without a body.
The book is written in two halves (two “books”), necessarily so, and is done so skilfully and with such precision and attention to detail that the halves are entirely complimentary. I’ve read books like this before and have often been frustrated by the first or the second half and ended up making a comparison of which is better or more articulately written. This is not so with “A Place of Execution”.
The characters are interesting, engaging and strong and understandably focus heavily on the Police involvement in the investigation and their subsequent dilemma in building a case for murder against a suspect when no body has been recovered. The central character is DI George Bennett and his sidekick Tommy Clough. McDermid’s characterisation has always been exceptional and is even more so in this book. I found myself easily able to really identify with and recognise the characters; you felt that you’d come across them in walks of life and knew who they were. DI George Bennett is a University educated, fast tracked promotion graduate who is articulate, seemingly cautious but totally committed to obtaining results through hard graft and based on factual evidence. Tommy Clough, on the other hand, is your typical life cop, having been in the job a long time, been there, done that, hard drinking, womanising cynic. The author uses her incredible talents to build these two characters into a dynamic team that work together rather than against each other and manages to make this scenario entirely believable.
The development and descriptions of the villager’s of Scardale is one of the best parts of this novel. There are two main families from the village with a couple of surnames being common and a history of a lot of “in-breeding” and tales of a village that is very much self preserved and extremely protective of its inhabitants. The village also has a “Squire” – someone who owns all of the properties and nearly all of the land and on whom the villager’s are entirely dependent for their livelihoods. Alison’s Mum (Ruth Hawkins) happens to be married to the Squire – her second marriage – and lives in Scardale Manor, the grandest house in the village. Ma Lomas, the village matriarch is everyone’s mum, grandmum or aunt and really is the “tour de force” behind each and every one of them. It is through her leadership and expert knowledge of the locality that events begin to unfold and the Police find enough evidence to make shocking, sickening discoveries about the chain of events that led to Alison’s disappearance. Based on the evidence that involves explicit photographic evidence of sexual abuse at the hands of someone the girl knows well, the Police set about building a case for murder; a case strong enough to charge someone with murder without that crucial piece of evidence … a body. Based almost solely on evidence that could be circumstantial, shockingly the death sentence is considered, but is it used?
As someone who has known and experienced rural areas like this, I instantly recognised the survival instinct, the strength of the villager’s and their need to not be beholden to the powers that be. Initially, there is a lot of suspicion of the Police and concern that they had the missing girl and her family’s best interests at heart, rather than the detectives involved ambitions to develop careers at a high personal cost to them. Those suspicions are overcome in order to seek justice for Alison and whatever happened to her, and they begin to work with rather than against the Police to try and achieve that.
DI Bennett and his team succeed in preparing a case that is considered strong enough to bring a murder charge without a body and a trial follows with a dramatic outcome.
The second half of the book is set 25 years into the future in 1998. The result of the trial is so dramatic that a quarter of a century later, it starts to have an impact on the future and cannot stay buried in the past. Journalist Catherine Heathcote is about to write a novel about the case and manages to convince DI Bennett to talk about his experiences. Little did she know that she was about to uncover sensational, sinister information that threatens to destroy the lives of her friends and families as well as the Bennett’s comfortable lives and DI Bennett’s belief in his own integrity. Heathcote discovers the most incredible truth; the real truth about what happened to Alison Carter 25 years ago and it really does threaten to blow worlds apart.
This book was an absolute delight to read and contained all the classic ingredients for a damned good murder mystery. Val McDermid manages once again to build an atmospheric, compelling, tension ridden story that will leave you chilled and fulfilled.
In itself, the actual story is exceedingly clever, and has the reader gripped until the last chapter. I continue to be astonished by the sheer intelligence of this author’s writing and every novel I have read by her has stayed with me for a long time. McDermid really is a Master (Mistress?) in the art of story telling; I am overawed by the creativity of her imagination and her faultless narration of novels that keep me gripped from the first page to the last.
This is one of the author’s earlier works and for me it’s the best so far. That’s not to say that her other novels are anything but terrific, simply that with this book, it’s hard to improve on perfection. I didn’t find this story quite so terrifying but it is definitely compelling and addictive. If anything the most overwhelming feeling I had whilst reading this was one of intense sadness. It’s a complex story, intelligently delivered, and filled with drama, suspense and atmosphere that will have you racing to the conclusion.
I have one minor criticism of this novel. One of the most irksome parts of the story was the focus that was given to the smoking habits of the characters and particularly the Police officers. I’m sure it was partly done to create the feel of the Sixties, but in my opinion the references are excessive. So much so, that without the attention given over to descriptions of the habit the book itself could probably be at least one hundred pages shorter! I’m almost sure that anyone, smoker or otherwise, who has read this book would be inclined to agree with me. However, if you haven’t read the book, don’t let this put you off as it really is very minor indeed.
Val McDermid is a force to be reckoned with in this genre and I for one continue to be hungry for more.
Published by Harper Collins
550 suspense filled pages
Available from Amazon new £5.59, used from £0.95
© Christina ;-) x
Summary: Great story, entertaining read, not to be missed.