When 13 year old Alison Carter vanishes in the winter of 1963, the impact is felt keenly on the inhabitants of Scardale, the Peak District farming hamlet in which she lived. Derbyshire police investigator George Bennett, taking on his first murder inquiry, knows that time is of the essence. Under increasing pressure to find Alison, and facing suspicious hostility from the closed-knit community of Scardale, Bennett must call on all his resources in an effort to find out what happened to the young girl.
Val McDermid’s A Place of Execution was originally written in 1999 and was recently reissued. Why I didn’t read it upon its initial publication I have no idea. I’m a fan of McDermid’s fiction and only picked this up because it’s a stand-alone novel with no series’ character so I thought it would be ideal for a one-off read. Let me tell you, I am so grateful that I did, because A Place of Execution is absolutely outstanding.
Firstly, it’s a huge novel – around 132,000 words – but the length befits the story, as the novel takes us all the way through the investigation, right from the girls’ disappearance at the start, via the police investigation and plot development, through to the eventual arrest and even the trial. Then there’s the final twist, as the story then leaps forward 35 years when a journalist – who has written a book detailing the original tragic events of 1963 – uncovers some fresh information which sheds light onto the original investigation. As well as a superb police procedural, it’s a clever whodunnit, with several twists along the way, and a fascinating insight into the criminal process.
The novel is told very much from the point of view of investigator George Bennett, whose dogged determination to gain closure for the girl’s family feels real and heart-breakingly earnest. About two thirds of the way through the novel I thought I had guessed the outcome, yet I was completely fooled by the time I had reached the end.
The pacing is excellent, with a lovely consistency to the prose, evoking a wonderfully atmospheric recreation of a bleak Derbyshire farming community. At times the narrative references the real-life Moors Murders, of which I believe McDermid covered as a journalist in the 1960s, which is a sobering reminder that against the backdrop of fictionalised crime, devastating events actually took place. This casts a very dark pall over the whole proceedings. By the time the conclusion is reached, there are seriously dramatic implications for many the characters, lending the story an almost Shakespearean element.
Because of the fulness of the investigation story, and the logical yet unexpected conclusion to the mystery, I found A Place of Execution to be an absolute crime classic, and worthy of anyone’s time. McDermind’s prose is masterful and confident, displaying assured storytelling skills and controlled dialogue. Highly recommended.