Book: A Place of Execution

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A Place of Execution

Author: Val McDermid
Publisher: St. Martin's Minotaur

On a freezing day in December 1963, thirteen-year-old Alison Carter vanishes from her village. Nothing will ever be the same again for the inhabitants of the isolated hamlet in the English countryside. A young George Bennett, a newly-promoted inspector, he is determined to solve this case—even if it just to bring home a daughter’s dead body to her mother.

As days progress, the likelihood that Alison has been murdered increases when a gruesome discovery is made in a cave. But with no corpse, the barest of clues, and an investigation that turns up more questions than answers, Bennett finds himself up against a stone wall…until he learns the shocking truth—a truth that will have far-reaching consequences.

Decades later, Bennett finally tells his story to journalist Catherine Heathcote. But just when the book is posed for publication, he pulls the plug on it without explanation. He has new information that he will not divulge. Refusing to let the past remain a mystery, Catherine sets out to uncover what really happened to Alison Carter. But the secret is one she might wish she’d left buried on that cold, dark day thirty-five years ago.


Penzler Pick, August 2000: Val McDermid, better known in England than in the U.S., is a well respected writer of crime fiction. Her three ongoing mystery series feature red-haired PI Kate Brannigan; Lindsay Gordon, a lesbian socialist journalist, and Tony Hill and Carol Jordan, clinical psychologist and detective inspector respectively. A Place of Execution is McDermid’s first stand-alone mystery, and with it, she redefines the term “village mystery.”

It is 1963, the Beatles are becoming wildly popular in England, and the Swinging Sixties are about to change the post-war Western world. But in the village of Scardale in the Peaks District of Derbyshire, a desolate area beloved of hikers and climbers, nothing has changed for hundreds of years. The village has remained small and insular—most villagers are related, and the most common second names are Carter and Lomas. When Alison Carter, aged 13, disappears while walking her dog, the case is given to a young detective inspector named George Bennett. As Bennett gets to know the families in the village and their concerns, he realizes that this case is not as simple as it first seems. The villagers seem to be closing ranks, and Bennett suspects they may be protecting one of their own. Central to his investigation are Alison’s mother and her husband. When Ruth Carter remarried, she chose Philip Hawkin, an outsider who is now the current squire of the village. As Alison’s stepfather, he raises all kinds of red flags for Bennett. But so does Alison’s close relationship with her cousin Charlie who, too conveniently, it seems, finds a vital clue.

All this is complicated by the fact that the police and the villagers cannot find Alison’s body; there are also other disappearances in the area which may or may not be connected. To reveal more about this riveting mystery would be to give too much away. McDermid takes the reader through a maze of conflicting facts and theories, and when Bennett, with the help of local police, solves the case, the real story is only just beginning—especially for Bennett, who will question not only his own part in solving this case, but ultimately the profession he has chosen. —Otto Penzler

Barnes and Noble

To put the matter simply, veteran crime writer Val McDermid’s latest novel, A Place of Execution, is an astonishing piece of work: suspenseful, moving, evocative, and filled with unexpected twists and turns. Not surprisingly, it was a finalist for the British Crime Writers Association’s Gold Dagger Award as Best Novel of 1999. Its American incarnation seems poised to repeat that success and should become a primary contender for all of the mystery field’s major awards.

The bulk of the narrative takes place in 1963 and is set against the bleak, inhospitable Derbyshire countryside. The story begins with the disappearance of 30-year-old Alison Carter, who vanishes without a trace while walking her dog on the moors outside her isolated village of Scardale. Alison’s disappearance triggers a protracted, painstakingly detailed investigation that affects the lives of literally dozens of people. Included among them are Alison’s distraught mother; her remote, self-absorbed stepfather; her xenophobic Scardale neighbors; and a decent, dogged police inspector named George Bennett, whose determination to unravel the mystery develops into a personal crusade that will color the remainder of his life.

For weeks on end, the investigation goes nowhere. And though the few available clues indicate probable foul play, Alison’s body is never found. Eventually, despite the absence of a body, investigators unearth an incriminating cache of physical evidence, identify a particularly loathsome culprit, and successfully prosecute him for murder. Most suspense novels would end at this point, but McDermid has a whole new set of surprises in reserve.

Moving her narrative forward almost 35 years, she takes us into the distant aftermath of the crime and into the life of Catherine Heathcote, the investigative journalist whose re-creation of the Alison Carter case constitutes the first 300 pages of this novel. The final section recounts the unexpected revelations that Catherine—in conjunction with the now retired George Bennett—gradually uncovers. These revelations cast the events of 1963 in a startling new light, transforming a straightforward tale of murder and its consequences into a wholly original account of conspiracy, sexual misconduct, and carefully calculated revenge.

McDermid’s novel really is, in that overworked phrase, a tour de force. Even its reliance on a single, massive coincidence seems somehow justified and lends the narrative the emotional resonance of classical Greek tragedy. A Place of Execution is, throughout, an intelligently constructed, masterfully sustained performance and deserves the attention of discerning readers on both sides of the Atlantic. —Bill Sheehan

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