- Shopping Bag ( 0 items )
From Barnes & Noble
The Barnes & Noble Review
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 reviews horror, suspense, and science fiction for Cemetery Dance, The New York Review of Science Fiction, and other publications. His book-length critical study of the fiction of Peter Straub, At the Foot of the Story Tree, has just been published by Subterranean Press (www.subterraneanpress.com).