When I gave Val McDermid’s The Retribution a somewhat lukewarm review recently, two fellow reviewers urged me to try instead A Place of Execution a standalone novel set in Derbyshire. I think two recommendations from people whose opinions I trust is enough to convince me, so I bought the book on Amazon and started reading it as soon as it arrived. What appealed to me was the background to the book. I grew up in south Manchester in the 1980s and the Moors murders were in the not so distant past. I remember a policeman coming to my school and, as teenagers do, we were egging him on to reveal gory details about past cases. However, when it came to the terrible killings by Ian Brady and Myra Hindley this policeman, who had been involved in the original murder investigation, said it had cast a shadow over his life. And in some ways I had been affected too, as when we would drive over the bleak Saddleworth Moor you couldn’t help think about the children still buried there.
A Place of Execution has as one its protagonists a similar policeman who is investigating the disappearance of thirteen year old Alison Carter in 1963, only about twenty miles from the Manchester investigations. References to the Moors murders are kept to the minimum and when they do appear they are subtly made. This shows how strong a writer McDermid is, that she can create a context without labouring a point. The policeman is shown as an intelligent and conscientious man determined to bring the murderer to justice, whether or not the body of the missing girl is found. I found the blurb of the book slightly misleading, as it tells us that a modern-day journalist, Catherine Heathcote who is writing a book on the case, discovers a fresh lead. In fact this doesn’t occur until the final quarter of the book, with most of the novel concentrating on the original investigation. This isn’t a criticism, I enjoyed the main body of the book immensely, I just kept expecting the journalist to appear far earlier than she actually did.
The conclusion of the novel is both interesting and entirely believable. The writer doesn’t shirk from difficult subjects, in this case child abuse, but I think these passages were written in a straightforward and non-sensational way. The sense of place is amazing, I could recognise many of the landmarks and was truly transported to the Derbyshire of the 1960s. So thank you Maxine from Petrona and Chris from crimesquad.com. You were both right. I really did need to read A Place of Execution to appreciate what a fine writer Val McDermid is.