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A Place of Execution    by Val McDermid order for
Place of Execution
by Val McDermid
Order:  USA  Can
St. Martin's, 2001 (2000)
Hardcover, Paperback, Audio

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* *   Reviewed by Hilary Williamson

On the surface this is a straightforward police procedural. A young girl named Alison disappears from Scardale, an isolated hamlet in Darbyshire. Newly promoted Detective Inspector George Bennett agonizes over the case and the mother's grief, especially after his young wife informs him that she is pregnant and he imagines how he would feel in similar circumstances. The story moves along in the expected manner, though with more emphasis on the feelings of all involved than usual for this type of story.

George and DS Tommy Clough become obsessed with the case and pursue it relentlessly despite difficulty in obtaining information from the locals, who are not used to interacting with outsiders. The clues are slowly uncovered and finally reveal that a pedophile has systematically abused the young girl. Circumstantial evidence suggests her murder. Despite the fact that the body of the victim has not been found and defense claims that the police engineered evidence, Bennett's persistence brings the abuser to trial and he is hung. But the harm that he has done lingers on, to affect not only his victim but all whose lives were touched by these events.

The basic whodunit only takes up two thirds of this novel, there is more ... The case has haunted many people through their lives, in particular George Bennett who always felt that he was slow to uncover the truth and so contributed to the mother's pain. His baby son Paul, born just after the accused was hung, has grown up and encountered a journalist, Catherine Heathcote, who want to write a book about these events. Paul persuades his father to cooperate with Catherine and soon afterwards he becomes engaged to a young woman, whose sister now owns the manor from which Alison disappeared decades earlier.

The standard police procedural evolves into a psychological thriller full of surprises. The author hints at various possibilities along the way to keep the reader guessing. But the truth is not obvious and its exposure could result in a great deal of harm to the innocent. How important is it that it should be disclosed? This is one of several social issues underlying the story. It also addresses capital punishment and the balance between the victims' desire for retribution and society's responsibility for justice. We must assume that the author's ending supplies her own answer to some of these questions.

Though McDermid presents a fascinating and well crafted puzzle with sympathetic characters, A Place of Execution did not grab my interest to the same extent as some of her other stories, in particular those featuring P.I. Kate Brannigan. But it is a thoughtful read and does a great job of leading the reader well down the garden path.

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