“A Place of Execution” by Val McDermid

McDermid, Val. A Place of Execution (1999)
St. Martin’s, 465 pages, $6.99 mass market paperback   
ISBN 0-312-97953-3 


British writer Catherine Heathcote has nearly finished her book about a famous case, the disappearance of 13-year-old Alison Carter 25 years earlier. Although Heathcote has interviewed all the people still living who were involved in the case, the bulk of her book has come from the account of George Bennett, the young detective for whom Alison’s disappearance was the first big case. 

Alison Carter was never seen again after she disappeared. The case shocked the inhabitants of her tiny village, which is so small and close-knit that all the residents share three surnames and are complexly inter-related. Alison’s stepfather was Philip Hawkin, an outsider who had inherited the manor house a few years earlier upon his uncle’s death. Although Alison’s body was never found, Bennett was able to build a convincing circumstantial case against Hawkin, who was convicted and hanged for Alison’s murder.

Heathcote and Bennett have worked closely together preparing her book. The manuscript is in final preparation for publication when an agitated Bennett calls the writer and tells her the book cannot be published. Why has Bennett so suddenly changed his mind? And why should Heathcote go along with his entreaty that publication be stopped?

In this novel McDermid employs a type of narrative structure called framed narrative, sometimes referred to as “bookends”: a large central portion of a book bracketed at the beginning and end by shorter narrative pieces, usually told by a different narrator than that of the central portion. In A Place of Execution the large central portion is the book that Heathcote has written on the basis of her research and centering on Bennett’s investigation; this part is set in 1963, at the time of Alison’s disappearance. But McDermid’s novel begins and ends with sections about Heathcote that occur in the present, 25 years after the case. The purpose of the bookend structure in this case is to allow for the passage of time – time that will finally raise the central issues that the novel explores.

A Place of Execution won the following awards:

  • Anthony Award for best novel  
  • Macavity Award for best crime novel of 2000 
  • Los Angeles Times Books of the Year Award  
  • Dilys Award  
  • Barry Award for best British mystery 
  • New York Times Notable Book of the Year

This mystery novel transcends genre fiction by raising issues such as guilt and innocence, the meaning of justice, human resilience, and the importance of community.

© 2002 by Mary Daniels Brown

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