Reviewer: Catriona Troth
What we thought: I first heard of A Place of Execution via an interview with Val McDermid on the BBC’s World Book Club. It made me desperate to read it, but the book was published in 1999 and – shockingly – neither my local bookshop nor my library could supply it. So I’ve had to wait to sample what was described as McDermid’s best book.
I’ve always liked novels that break the boundaries of what crime fiction can be, and A Place of Execution is certainly one of those. The first part of the book purports to be by a journalist investigating the disappearance of a young girl which took place in an isolated hamlet in the White Peak district of Derbyshire in 1963. This is the time of the first Moors Murders, and newspaper reports of the disappearance of other children appear throughout the book. It is also, importantly, the last time in the UK when a capital sentence for murder could still be given, and the title is taken from the formal wording of that sentence.
The journalist grew up in the town where the missing girl had gone to school and her own teenage years had been affected by what happened. Perhaps because of this, she is the first person who, thirty years on, manages to persuade the original investigating officer to talk about the case.
McDermid herself was a journalist, working for three years as Northern Bureau Chief for a Sunday tabloid, so this is a territory she knows well. She evokes a landscape of secret dales and hidden limestone caves – a country where hamlets such as Scardale could be cut off from towns only a few miles down the road, and where the people are, of necessity, both self-reliant and suspicious of outsiders.
The police investigation of the girl’s disappearance, and their eventual conclusion that she has been murdered even though no body has been found, seems to be carried out the face of resentful obstruction on the part of the villagers. Only the single-minded determination of the young police inspector and his sergeant see to it that someone is brought to justice for the girl’s murder.
It’s a story full of wonderful characters and a thoroughly chilling villain. But the fact that the conclusion to the investigation comes a mere two-thirds of the way through the novel should tell you that this book far from a straightforward account of a brutal crime.
Just as she is completing her first draft, the journalist receives a letter from the policeman, withdrawing his cooperation and begging her not to publish her book. What has happened, thirty years on, to make him change his mind?
The twist that McDermid introduces is breathtaking, powerful and ingenious. Whatever your starting point, this is a story calculated to challenge your assumptions about crime, justice, truth, and the nature of capital punishment.
You’ll enjoy this if you liked: Border Crossing by Pat Barker, Innocent Blood by PD James
Avoid if you dislike: crime novels that refuse to deliver a simple conclusion.
Ideal accompaniments: Endless cups of tea and a good coal fire
Genre: crime fiction
Health Warning – this book is best avoided if you have just given up smoking!