Book vs Adaptation: A Place of Execution

The book

Val McDermid’s A PLACE OF EXECUTION was the author’s first standalone novel after books in several series. A book of distinct parts it sets its scene with a foreword by by one of its key characters, author Catherine Heathcote, who 35 years after the event, has written a book about the landmark case of the disappearance of 13 year-old Alison Carter from her Peak District home in 1963. The first and longest part of the book then unfolds as a sort of flashback, showing us what happened from the point of view of George Bennett, the Detective Inspector who was in charge of the case and who had been extensively interviewed by Heathcote in preparation for her book. He revealed that police were called to the insular village of Scardale, where most people belong to one of only three families, one cold winter’s evening when Ruth Hawkin reported her daughter had not returned home after going out to walk her dog after school. Ruth, widowed from her first husband from whom Alison got her surname, is married to Philip Hawkin who is considered an incomer to the village having only lived there a year. But he is also the Squire, having recently inherited Scardale Manor and all the land that the villagers live and work on. At first everyone is keen to believe that Alison has deliberately left of her own accord and will soon return or that some minor accident has befallen her but when her dog is discovered tethered to a tree and muzzled with bandages to prevent him barking it becomes clear that something more sinister has occurred. After some false starts and trouble engaging the taciturn locals the police do pin down the person they believe responsible for the girl’s disappearance. And though they never discover Alison’s body Bennett believes there is enough physical and circumstantial evidence to mount a prosecution for murder. The last quarter of the book takes place 35 years later as Bennett is cajoled by his son to participate in the writing of Catherine Heathcote’s book.

A PLACE OF EXECUTION has all the hallmarks of a great read. Its characters are nuanced and engaging, its setting highly evocative and its story totally compelling. Each time I thought I’d worked out what the next twist would be McDermid managed to spin things in an unexpected way, keeping me guessing and also offering evidence why she is the writer and I the reader because every time her way was better than my half-baked one.

George Bennett is young for his rank having been fast-tracked through the force after studying law at University. This fact is the subject of scorn by some of his colleagues and this derision is, in turn, is one of the things that motivates him to devote himself to the case. But he also cares deeply, especially as he grows to know the people affected by Alison’s disappearance, and he wants desperately to give them justice at the very least if he cannot return Alison to them. Early on in the investigation he learns that his own wife is expecting their first child and this seems to make the case a more than usually personal one for George. His offsider is Tommy Clough, is an old-school copper who initially distrusts his educated boss but the two form a good bond over their shared despair at being unable to locate the missing girl and their reactions as they uncover the motive for the crime and the probable culprit. Scardale too is a character of sorts – its cloying presence very cleverly evoked by McDermid using deft description of the physical and social isolation of the place and fantastic minor characters, especially the matriarch of the village Ma Lomas. It is from her that most of the villagers take their behavioural cues, waiting to be fully honest with police until she indicates they are to be trusted.

In telling a small, intimate story the book manages to explore wider social issues of the time too. The very nature of what constitutes justice and who is responsible for bringing it about is considered in a thought-provoking way. The timing too is important as Alison Carters disappearance takes place at the same time and close to the spot where the first disappearances in what became known as the Moors murders have taken place. There’s a real sense in the book of the beginnings of the loss of social innocence, some of which is only revealed in retrospect when some of the key players reflect on how the events impacted them while being interviewed by Catherine.

In short there’s very little not to like about this thoughtful book that deals with the horrendous subject of the disappearance and possible murder of a child with sensitivity while still providing a thoroughly gripping read.

The adaptation

The novel was adapted for a 3-part TV series called PLACE OF EXECUTION that first aired in the UK in 2008. It starred Lee Ingleby and Philip Jackson as George Bennett (young and old respectively) and Juliet Stephenson as Catherine Heathcote. Although it tells the same basic story about the disappearance of Alison Carter it does so in a very different way. Here the whole story is set clearly in the present day as Catherine is making a TV documentary about what has become a landmark case. There are multiple flashbacks to the original case but I didn’t as a viewer get transported back to Scardale in 1963 in the same way as I did with the book’s single, long flashback. Apart from the constant juxtaposition the approach made me aware almost from the outset that something was critically wrong with the way the original case had played out whereas the first real indication of this fact for readers of the book is that there’s still a quarter of it to go when the original murder trial is concluded. The adaptation is less suspenseful because of this.

The relative roles of the characters in the adaptation are almost reversed. Catherine takes much more of a central role and is more fleshed-out, having a teenage daughter of her own with whom she struggles to communicate and a mother with whom she also has a strained relationship. George on the other hand is less of a dominant character, remaining unmarried and having no children though a more stellar police career than his literary counterpart. So rather than being George’s story of his involvement with a case that shaped his life and career this is more a story about the modern-day journalist’s investigation into the case.

While I didn’t think too much of the adaptation’s screenplay, which McDermid herself had a hand in, I thought the acting was solidly decent, and it’s not hard to see why Stevenson won an award for her role at the 2009 Crime Thriller Awards. The casting for Geroge was good, although I’m never entirely happy when two people play a single role, but Ingleby in particular seemed to get the essence of the character.

The winner?

An adaptation has a delicate balance to achieve. On the one hand it should not be so fanatically faithful to its source material that its existence seems pointless but it should also trust its source material enough not to feel the need to alter it beyond recognition, especially where those alterations are for the sake of dumbing down or commercialising the original ideas. For me this adaptation really does seem to do quite a bit of the latter, perhaps in a quest to simplify the complex story for the shortened time frame available for storytelling but with the result that it feels like a very superficial tale, as though its audience would be incapable of grasping any nuance at all. Although the flashback scenes have all the right visual cues – clothes, hair-styles, endless cigarette-smoking etc – there’s actually far less of a sense of the time and place than provided by the book; a remarkable thing when you consider that the one thing adaptations should excel at is visualisation.

In focusing so much on the present day the story is far less about Alison Carter, her disappearance, and its impact on those who were left behind. It’s far more about the modern media’s penchant for finding a story’s gutter angle and inserting themselves into stories instead of observing and reporting on them. All this leaves far less time to get to know Alison, the young George Bennett or the village and its inhabitants. Ma Lomas – an almost physical presence in three quarters of the book – barely registers here and her replacement by a vapid researcher engaged in a rivalry with Catherine is banal.

So for me the book is the clear winner by a decent margin on this occasion. It is engrossing, surprising and intelligent while I found the adaptation indistinguishable from a dozen other tales and shallow in its focus.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

Book vs Adaptation is an irregular series of posts stemming from the fact that sometimes I’m too tired to read and so turn to DVDs and downloads (all legal I assure you, I am far too terrified of prison to turn to channel bittorrent). If there’s an adaptation you think I should look out for do let me know. All my posts in this series are available on their own page.

The book 4.5/5, 15 hours 13 minutes, audio edition (narrated by Paddy Glynn) released 2009, originally published 1998, I bought it
The adaptation 3/5. 2.5 hours, aired first 2008, I bought it on DVD from the UK

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This work by http://reactionstoreading.com is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

The one where I give unsolicited advice

Dear independent* author
 
I understand that in today’s topsy-turvy publishing world you have to take on many roles in addition to your writing. I am sympathetic to you because in my job I too have had to become an expert on many things that aren’t part of the work I trained to do including budgeting, managing people, procuring goods and services within the ever-changing rules and regulations of the jurisdiction in which I work and having a grasp on a massive array of hardware and software. Frankly it sucks having to be a Jill of all trades and master of none and I appreciate that you’re probably doing the best you can.
 
I know too that you probably have received a boatload of advice – solicited and not – about how best to market your book and make it stand out from the million or so other books published each and every day. So the last thing you probably want is yet another piece of such advice but I’m gonna give you some anyway. 
  1. No means no. Not ‘maybe’ or ‘well since you badgered me I will change the habits of a lifetime and read a werewolf novel just this one time’.
  2. An unsolicited plea by you for a total stranger to read/review/promote your book does not entitle you to a response or an explanation. If you push for one, be prepared for it to be curt. Or even unpleasant. 
  3. Do not assume every book blogger on the internet is American. When you do (and a lot of you will) don’t be surprised that it irks those of us who aren’t.
  4. Before you plea with a book blogger to host your blog tour / interview / giveaway / free tattooing of first-born child with your book’s logo take 60 seconds to look at the blog you’re asking a favour of to see if such things are regular features there and/or whether or not your particular book is the kind the blogger(s) reads. Or if you don’t do this (and a lot of you won’t) don’t be surprised when you get no response.
  5. Spell and grammar check your begging email. 
Kind Regards
 
Bernadette at Reactions to Reading
*After a comment I realise this might be unclear – in my head I was writing to authors who have ‘published’ their own manuscripts by whatever means available without those books having gone through the benefit of a process which has turned their manuscript into a novel (e.g. editing by someone other than a family member, proofreading, typesetting and the myriad of other things that the publishing process has traditionally taken care of). I wasn’t thinking of authors published by small publishing houses that are sometimes called independent (though rarely by me as I don’t really know what it means when it comes to publishers)

Listening…Packing…Moving…Renovating

Knowing I was heading into a period of very limited internet access combined with little time for ‘proper’ reading I wanted to load my iPod nano with audio books to keep me company while I packed, moved and lived amongst renovation chaos. I’m still living amidst semi-chaos (minor by most standards I’m sure but I’m someone who likes order and things being in their proper place so for me it is stressful) but my internet connectivity is back to normal and I have carved out some space for the important things like reading and blogging about reading. I’ve not the time nor the recall to do proper reviews of all the books I listened to but here are some vague thoughts about them all. I am newly grateful I am one of those people who can absorb books in this format. I know plenty of people who can’t do so and I would have been a lot more curmudgeonly in recent weeks if I hadn’t been able to escape with the help of some terrific storytellers.

At nearly 30 hours in length CAN YOU FORGIVE HER?, the first of Anthony Trollope’s six Palliser novels, certainly achieved the goal of providing many hours of listening and narrator Timothy West was superb. I think I’d have struggled to wade through some of the minutiae in a print version of the book (It takes nearly an hour to describe a fairly unremarkable picnic for example) but even if that were not the case I feel somewhat privileged to have had the tale told to me in this way. Set contemporaneously in the early 1860′s the book tells the tale of Alice Vavasor and her various engagements and disengagements (it is this series of entanglements which the reader is asked to forgive) in parallel with the stories of two other women: a wealthy widow with two suitors competing for her affections and Lady Glencora who is married to an up and coming politician, Plantaganet Palliser, but who pines for her first love. It’s an easy read…allowing the reader to become lost in the gorgeous language and the intimate workings of this rather insular social set. I was struck almost equally by the similarities between modern times and the setting of the book, including most people’s obsession with gossiping about others and a focus on things like money and appearance, and the vast differences, particularly with respect to the opportunities for women. Although I’m sure my attention waned a little at times I did become thoroughly involved in the lives of Alice and her set and will let Timothy West tell me the rest of the stories at some point in the future.

Regular visitors to the blog will not be surprised to learn that after all of this Victorian goodness I felt compelled to return to the trusted ground of crime fiction. I started with NJ Cooper’s FACE OF THE DEVIL in which a young girl is stabbed to death on the Isle of Wight, seemingly by schizophrenic teenager Olly Matken who claims to have been protecting her from the devil. DCI Charlie Trench seeks the help of psychologist Karen Taylor to oversee interviews with the boy but she is soon drawn deeper into the case as she tries to determine his level of responsibility. I found the book a bit slow to get going but it picked up pace as we see Karen explore the psychological motivations for behaviour by various participants in the small community’s activities. There’s a nice exploration of Karen’s personal life too as she reveals her personnel connection to the island and undergoes some soul-searching about her personal relationships. A solidly decent read by this new-to-me author and narrator Julia Franklin did a very nice job. You’ll find a more in-depth review of this book at the always excellent Petrona.

Next up was Ann Cleeves’ SILENT VOICES, the fourth book to feature DI Vera Stanhope who investigates crime in Northumbria, this time finding the body herself as she participates in a doctor-enforced health regime at her local gym. I will have more to say about this book soon (when I’ve watched the corresponding TV adaptation) but for now I’ll say I’m sure my enjoyment of the story about murky pasts was only enhanced by the narration of actress Charlie Hardwick who really did become Vera in my head. Check out full reviews at Euro Crime and Mysteries in Paradise for more details.

In Mo Hayder’s GONE, which I selected because it won one of the big awards this year (I can’t remember which one) DI Jack Caffery is called to a car-jacking which takes on sinister overtones because a young girl was in the back seat of the car when it was taken and as time drags on it becomes clear she won’t be returning of her own volition. This is one of those twisty turny police procedurals that really shows off the genre at its best though for me the segments we spend with Flea Marley, head of the Police diver squad who spends a good portion of the book alone in an underwater cave are a little less successful (a little bit too much ‘woo woo’ for my personal taste but probably not for most people). Once again check out Petrona for a full review.

Dick Francis’ SMOKESCREEN and TRIAL RUN found their way into my listening selection because I nabbed them while on special and Francis books narrated by Tony Britton are among my favourite comfort reads. These two books at least allowed me to briefly leave virtual Britain as SMOKESCREEN mostly takes place in South Africa where the interchangeable Francis hero, a movie actor in this instance, is looking into the poor form of some horses owned by an old family friend while in TRIAL RUN a different (but remarkably similar) hero heads to Moscow to determine if it will be suitable for a member of the British Royal Family to take part in the impending Olympic Games. In both books our protagonists are suitably heroic, surviving a plethora of near-death experiences between them (including both extremes of weather as one chap is handcuffed to a car in the baking African sun while the other is hurled into a near-frozen river on a wintry Russian night. While I might gently scoff at the ‘sameyness’ of the books these two were entertaining enough for my purposes, offering Francis’ trademark research woven expertly into his adventures and satisfying (if predictable) endings.

I wouldn’t normally read quite so many police procedurals in such a small space of time, especially not all set in Britain, but the books available in audio format tend to be the big name English and American authors and at the time I made my selection none of the American selection leapt out at me. Got any good audio book recommendations for me now that my iPod is almost empty?

Celebrating Reginald Hill

As part of the Crime Writers’ Association’s Crime Writing Month the internet is playing host to a celebration of the life and work of Reginald Hill who died earlier this year. For the month of June a new post will appear each day at Celebrating Reginald Hill and will reflect on some aspect of Hill’s writing or broader life. The blog, created especially for this purpose, is also offering giveaways and an opportunity for Hill’s fans to share their stories about discovering the man or his writing. The blog is hosted by CWA debut dagger judge Rhian Davies and mystery novelist Margot Kinberg and it’s already proving to be a treat, having published personal accounts of meeting and getting to know Reg Hill, several reviews and a reflection on his short story writing.

I was quite chuffed to be asked to participate in these festivities and used it as an opportunity to re-read A CLUBBABLE WOMAN, the first book in Hill’s long-running Dalziel and Pascoe series, and compare it to the adaptation made for television. My contribution to the month-long festivities has now been posted.

Do head over and check out all the contributions as crime writers and readers from all over the world join in celebrating one of the genre’s most talented writers.

Books of the Month – May 2012

2012 is turning out to be a very slow reading year for me as May was another month where I read far fewer books than I would normally do.  My evenings have been spent getting ready for moving house rather than my usual pass time of reading. There are many reasons I’m looking forward to being in my new abode in mid-June, not least among them the ability to get back to full reading strength.

My pick of the month for May’s reads is Chris Grabenstein’s FUN HOUSE, the seventh book in the Ceepak and Boyle series set in a fictional resort town on the New Jersey shore where this time out our heroes take on reality television. With many long-running series failing to live up to my expectations I was chuffed to find that the latest book in this series is well and truly up to the usual standard. As more and more crime fiction tends towards the much-celebrated gritty realism (more on that later) I am newly appreciative of crime writers who can entertain and provoke thought without making my stomach churn.

Other books I read this month were

All but 2 of these books were by new-to-me authors, only one of those a début which is also the only book by an Australian author (IN HER BLOOD).
This month’s reading has really got me thinking about violence in crime fiction. A subject I think I will return to in a future blog post when my thoughts have crystallised a little more.

If you want to see other people’s crime fiction picks of the month head over to Mysteries in Paradise for the Pick of the Month meme

Review: BIRTHDAYS FOR THE DEAD by Stuart MacBride

I finished listening to Stuart MacBride’s BIRTHDAYS FOR THE DEAD a couple of days ago and I didn’t like it. Lots of people have recommended the author to me and with reviews like this one I thought I might enjoy the book even though it features a serial killer (been there, done that, got the t-shirt). Alas I struggled to find the book even vaguely credible and thought the protagonist a crushing, arrogant bore. As always I’m sure my reactions say more about me than they do about the quality of the book but it was definitely not one for me.

It has an audacious premise which I wholeheartedly failed to ever buy into. It is that there is a serial killer active around the mainland UK who each year for many years has been kidnapping a 12-year old girl, torturing her then killing her on her 13 birthday. Every subsequent year each girl’s parents receive a home made birthday card featuring progressively more gruesome pictures of their respective daughters as they die. One of the policemen working the case is Detective Constable Ash Henderson whose own daughter, Rebecca, disappeared when she was 12, five years ago as the book opens. But Henderson has not told anyone that he too receives the photo cards on Rebecca’s birthdays and that therefore she was a victim of the sadistic killer. Henderson’s ex-wife, his other daughter and his colleagues all believe Rebecca simply disappeared or, as the ex-wife says ‘abandoned us’.

Even if I were to accept that Ash Henderson is probably self-absorbed enough to think his need to stay on the case more important than anyone else’s right to know what had happened to their own family member I couldn’t swallow the rest of this premise. Particularly his ex-wife’s blasé acceptance of her daughter’s status as a runaway. Even if there wasn’t a handy serial killer to blame wouldn’t most parents believe that a child of that age had been the victim of some other ‘normal’ criminal rather than a runaway? And did no one on the investigating team ever contemplate that Rebecca – who disappeared at 12 – might have been a victim of a killer with a dedicated interest in 12 year olds? Especially as she went missing in the only year the serial killer is thought not to have kidnapped anyone during his reign of terror? .And before you start muttering “it’s fiction you know, it doesn’t have to be realistic” I know that but, for me at least, an author has to establish a world in which I believe the things that he or she is telling me could happen and MacBride didn’t pull that off in this instance. He described a series of increasingly preposterous events against the backdrop of a very real world and none of it sounded plausible even for a moment.

I suspect the failure of the book to meet my personal ‘ring of truth’ test would not have bothered me nearly so much if it weren’t for anti-hero Ash bloody Henderson. It’s not as if he struggles with the ethics of whether or not to tell his family the truth about Rebecca he just knows he is right not to. Aside from the patronising arrogance of this secret-keeping, he is corrupt and endlessly violent and hangs out at strip clubs and I just couldn’t stand him. The fact that he occasionally produces a nicely sardonic patter doesn’t nearly make up for the tedium of spending time with him as he looks around for a new face to smash his fist into. I like a flawed character as much as the next crime fiction fan but that phrase suggests, at least to me, that there are some un-flawed parts of the character as well. I failed to find any in the violent, arrogant, juvenile, narcissistic mess that was Ash Henderson..

I’m sure there are many readers who won’t react as I did to this book. They won’t have read their fill of serial-killer books featuring tortured souls on disgusting quests that require the mutilation of innocent people. Their stomachs won’t churn at the gratuitous beatings, killings and torture that virtually every character in the book is subjected to. They’ll see Ash Henderson as a witty anti-hero whose antics are justified. I hope those people enjoy the book. Because I can see why it is that people have recommended this author to me. His writing is good, filled with wickedly accurate observations about human behaviour and there’s a vein of dark humour that I did enjoy, particularly as personified in the character of Dr Alice MacDonald, the quirky profiler that all serial killer stories demand. She has a plethora of phobias, almost becomes an alcoholic out of politeness and has a string of the best funny lines of the book. Although she is an archetypal character I found her genuinely engaging and enough of a treat that I am not sworn off of books by this author. But next time I’ll check reviews for the violence level and the presence of serial killers.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

Other opinions are of course and as always available. Online reviews of this one are mixed but here are some very positive ones to counteract all of my ramblings including those at Euro Crime, Herald Scotland, Literary Treats

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
My rating 2/5
Narrator Ian Hanmore
Publisher Harper Collins [2012]
ASIN B006LQGL1Y
Length 14 hours 12 minutes
Format audio (mp3)
Book Series standalone
Source I bought it
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This work by http://reactionstoreading.com is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.