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 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.
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.
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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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