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A Place of Execution - Val McDermid
Member Name: caro
A Place of Execution - Val McDermid
Date: 16/07/00, updated on 19/02/01 (120 review reads)
Advantages: absorbing plot
Disadvantages: disappointing resolution
The book is firmly rooted in its setting: an isolated village, Scardale, in the Peak District, at the time of the Moors Murders. Scardale’s physical isolation is reflected in its closely-related families and feudal attitudes. The outside world, in the form of the police, intrudes when the squire’s step-daughter goes missing. The village closes ranks against them, and they face trying to break this silence if they are to solve the mystery of the girl’s fate.
Unfortunately, the village and its inhabitants do not really come to life. They do not seem to exist beyond their descriptions; it is as if the use of a very distinctive location substitutes for the creation of a genuine sense of atmosphere. Given its nature (the physical barriers it presents against the outside world), the village could not be anything but unwelcoming and closed upon itself. A more subtle evocation of these attitudes would have been more satisfying to the reader.
Equally unsubtle were some of the attempts to introduce period atmosphere. Every so often, there are intrusive moments where characters talk unnaturally to emphasise that this is taking place in The Sixties: “She’s just got the new Beatles number one, ‘I Want To Hold Your Hand’.” My mum never talked like that about my record collection!
Before buying this book, I wasn’t too sure about the references made in the blurb to the Brady/Hindley murders. Having read it, I felt that the references to those events were exploitative rather than essential to the plot. However, I may be doing the author a disservice: this is perhaps be less an attemp
t to attract readers than another piece of shorthand used to evoke a particular time and tension. Either way, it is an unsatisfactory device.
The detective upon whom the book focuses is a fast-track graduate, who has made extremely rapid progress to the rank of Detective Inspector. He faces a little mild hostility, spends a lot of time being careful not to be patronising to his less-educated subordinates, and is generally reminiscent of various other police heroes created by various other authors.
The second part of the book moves to the 1990s, and at this point is actually less convincing. The strong sense of place is lost, with little to replace it. The author of the first half, a writer about to publish her book of the mystery, becomes the protagonist. She is led by the behaviour of the now-retired detective to carry out further investigations into the old crime. (I hope this doesn’t seem to give too much away; it’s actually less information than appears on the back of the book).
Given the slightly heavy-handed approach to developing atmosphere and character, a similar approach to moral issues does not come as any surprise. The ending turns almost to melodrama. Without giving the plot away, I will just say that its conclusion seems to have been aimed more at avoiding moral ambiguity than at being a convincing resolution.
In summary, this book held my attention and was a reasonably entertaining read. However, I did end up feeling short-changed by the lack of subtlety, which certainly stopped it living up to its blurb. It promises rather more than it delivers.