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An Almost Perfect Execution
A Place of Execution - Val McDermid
Member Name: SWSt
A Place of Execution - Val McDermid
Advantages: Evocative setting and gripping plot
Disadvantages: Slightly slow start and over-extended ending
When a young girl goes missing in a remote Derbyshire village in the 1960s, new police Inspector George Bennett is suddenly faced with heading up his first major case. Refusing to let his own inexperience, the obstructive attitude of the villagers or media pressure get to him, George is determined to find justice for missing Alison Carter.
I confess, when I first started reading A Place of Execution, I didn't think I was going to enjoy it and found myself struggling to get into it at first. At the start, I found the pace rather pedestrian and the characters cold and unlikeable. Although I found it mildly interesting, I didn't find it gripping.
At some point (I couldn't pin point the exact moment), this changed and I suddenly realised that I had become hooked. The "pedestrian pacing" was transformed into an account of the careful and meticulous detail of the police investigation; the initially unlikeable character (particularly Bennett and his sidekick Clough) slowly develop and the reader warms to them; the hostility of the inhabitants of Scardale becomes more understandable. Having struggled with the book, I suddenly couldn't wait to read the next bit to see how the plot and characters evolved. The initial plodding tone reaped its own rewards - by the time I reached around page 100, I was totally immersed in the village of Scardale and the lives of these characters.
It's clear from a fairly early stage that all is not quite what it seems and it's not that tricky to spot the inconsistency that gives a major clue to the plot's resolution. Yet even though I'd worked out where it was heading by about the halfway point McDermid still managed to pull the rug (at least partly) from under my feet in the last part, producing a very satisfying conclusion.
A Place of Execution is a very cleverly constructed work, presented as a "book within a book". Much of the book simply concentrates on the narrative of the case, but there is also a wraparound story which tells of a journalist's quest to write a book about the case (the implication being that you are reading the fruits of this quest). This gives McDermid a great amount of narrative freedom. Much of it is written through the eyes of George Bennett as a first-hand account of events. However, thanks to the "book within a book" approach, McDermid is free to bring in other viewpoints or events that Bennett could not possibly have been aware of, without having to leap through convoluted narrative hoops to make them convincing.
It also allows for a far greater element of character development. As well as relating the events from the 1960s, the final part catches up with George Bennett as he reflects on the case long after he has retired. This gives the book both an epic feel and also a slightly tragic air in that we see the main character at his mental and physical peak and then have to observe him in his declining years, a shadow of his former self. This cleverly introduces an extra element of emotion.
An extra element is also in that the book examines the long-term implications of the events and their deep impact on so many characters. As the story broadens out into the present day, it becomes clear just how deeply and fundamentally this event affected the lives of everyone involved in it, whether they were directly involved or merely incidental players. It shows how a single tragic event can send out shockwaves which are still felt 40 years later.
McDermid also imbues the book with a strong sense of both time and people. In this age of instant, mass communication, it can be hard to imagine how isolated small rural villages could be in the 1960s. Yet McDermid does an excellent job of recreating the insular nature of such communities, and their resentful attitude to "outside" interference by the police.
The 60s were a time of massive social change, with a major shift in attitudes and the author captures this brilliantly. Isolated rural communities, such as Scardale were being forced to accept the gradual intrusion of "foreigners" (i.e. those who were not born in their village); the police were no longer quite the trusted figures they had been and the unquestioning attitude of people to authority was slowly changing. Without making any great fuss about it, McDermid recreates this time of immense change, folding it seamlessly into the main plot.
What doesn't work quite so well is the attempt to link the story with the notorious Moors Murders (which occurred during the same timeframe as the first part of this book). This is done through the inclusion of news reports and the subtle pressure on Bennett to accept that the same person was guilty of both crimes. This aspect of the story always felt rather separate and superficial to me. I can see what McDermid was trying to do, but for me it didn't' quite work.
It's also true that the book is still too long. Both the start and the ending are rather drawn out. There's a fine line between keeping a reader in suspense and getting them to the point where they are inwardly screaming "Come on! Get on with it!" and A Place of Execution just veers the wrong side of this line towards the end. Although the ending is ultimately satisfying, it is also frustrating that it takes so long to get there.
Despite its slow start and over-extended ending, I found myself gripped by A Place of Execution. The ambitious and imaginative tale had the ability to make you feel at home in a seemingly alien past, whilst constantly displaying the ability to surprise and wrong-foot you. If you like clever, well-constructed police thrillers which rely on intelligent plotting and atmosphere, then A Place of Execution is for you.
A Place of Execution
© Copyright SWSt 2012
Summary: A gripping read