A Place of Execution

by Val McDermid

Published by St. Martin's Minotaur

404 pages, 2000

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Brilliant Execution

Reviewed by Karen G. Anderson


"If Alison Carter's story tells us one thing, it is that even the gravest of dangers can wear a friendly face," journalist Catherine Heathcote intones solemnly in the introduction to the true-crime story she is writing about the death of a 13-year-old girl at the hands of her pedophile stepfather. Thus a few pages on, when we meet Philip Hawkin, the stepfather and despised squire of the remote English village of Scardale, we know he's guilty. The only question is, can young Detective Inspector George Bennett prove it?

Heathcote's gripping account of Bennett's investigation, written 25 years after the 1963 Carter slaying and based on interviews with the now-retired inspector, is a story-within-a-story. It's also the centerpiece of A Place of Execution, the latest crime novel by Val McDermid (author of the Kate Brannigan and Lindsay Gordon mystery series). Although Bennett and his investigative partner, Sergeant Tommy Clough, succeeded in building the case and Hawkin was convicted on a murder charge and executed, Alison's body was never found. Heathcote has brushed aside this and other troubling loose ends in the case, but just as she is putting the finishing touches on her manuscript, Bennett sends a letter demanding that she stop publication and refusing to tell her why.

In Execution, McDermid sets out to explore the criteria we use -- in journalism, in the legal system and in our own hearts -- to decide at what point facts coalesce into something we call "the truth." And how others -- journalists, attorneys and skilled criminals -- can manipulate our perceptions along the way. When the ambitious Heathcote retells the story of that 25-year-old crime, she believes she is giving voice to the truth. Having grown up in a dreary town not far from Scardale, Heathcote remembers the Carter murder as one of several rural kidnappings that haunted her childhood. When she discovers that her friend Helen's fiancé, Peter Bennett, is the son of George Bennett, she doesn't hesitate to exploit this connection to write a book she hopes will revitalize her journalism career.

Heathcote's manuscript -- which forms Book 1 of McDermid's novel -- opens on the freezing December evening when Alison went missing. Bennett, a young, university-educated inspector new to his position with the Derbyshire force, joins the duty sergeant, Bob Lucas, heading out to Scardale to investigate. The girl's tearful mother has reported that after coming home from school with friends, Alison went out to walk the family dog... and vanished. Peter Grundy, a local constable, whom Bennett and Lucas pick up in the nearby town, reluctantly provides some background as they drive along the narrow country roads: Alison is the stepdaughter of the Scardale squire, an outsider who recently inherited the shabby manor and farmlands from a relative. The girl's mother, Ruth Hawkin, is from one of three families who have lived for generations in the village, a place Bennett discovers to be remote and ingrown beyond anything in his experience.

"Just round the next bend, Sergeant," Grundy said from behind, his breath bitter with tobacco.

Lucas slowed the car to a crawl, following the curve of an overhanging pinnacle of rock. Almost immediately, the road ahead was blocked by a heavy barred gate. George drew his breath in sharply. If he'd been driving, unaware of the obstacle, they'd have crashed for sure. As Grundy jumped out and trotted to open the gate, George noticed several paint scrapes in a variety of colours along the rock walls on either side of the road. "They don't exactly welcome strangers with open arms around here, do they?"

Bennett finds Alison's mother distraught, the stepfather suspiciously detached and other locals closemouthed and defensive. Only after repeat visits and rough questioning of the missing girl's handsome young cousin, Charlie Lomas, does Bennett gain the confidence of the village matriarch, Ma Lomas. Over glasses of her home-distilled spirits, Ma Lomas reveals that squire Hawkin, who had assured police that he spent the afternoon of the murder in his photography darkroom, had been seen coming from the wooded area where Alison's dog -- and the evidence of a struggle -- were later found. When Ruth Hawkin finally lets police search her husband's darkroom, they find photographs showing that Hawkin had been repeatedly molesting the girl. Soon Alison's bloodstained clothing is discovered in a long-forgotten cave, and a similarly bloodstained weapon turns up hidden in the squire's library. The evidence is so compelling that the prosecutor agrees to bring murder charges even in the absence of the girl's body. Heathcote's re-creation of the 1963 investigation, trial and execution captures not only the depressing atmosphere of the remote village but the gray, post-war atmosphere that still hangs over rural England. Police forensic training is minimal, a college education is considered elitist and women such as George Bennett's young bride may be obviously intelligent but never question their stay-at-home roles.

McDermid carefully drops little stitches throughout Heathcote's tale. They lead up to Book 2, in which Bennett's letter arrives and the true-crime story unravels in Heathcote's hands -- threatening her career, Peter and Helen's engagement and even the elder Bennett's life. When the angry journalist insists on discovering what frightened Bennett, she stumbles onto the chilling story of what really happened in Scardale a quarter-century earlier. Like squire Hawkin, Heathcote comes to realize that both she and Bennett underestimated the Scardale villagers and the cunning and determination with which they would avenge a wrong against one of their children.

A winner of the United Kingdom's coveted Gold Dagger Award (for The Mermaids Singing, 1995), McDermid ranks high among the growing number of crime fiction authors who are carving out a sort of "British noir" -- a subgenre in which the morality of the investigators' behavior is often more in question than that of the criminals'. But unlike her colleagues Ian Rankin and Reginald Hill, McDermid makes little use of irony or humor. A Place of Execution is grim rather than wry, and its outlook is as dark as a winter's eve in Scardale. | October 2000


Karen G. Anderson is a contributing editor of January Magazine.