Festival Reader-in-Residence David Mark tells us how A Place of Execution influenced his decision to write crime fiction.
It’s 10.18am. Saturday morning. My partner has just driven the kids to their drama school and the various teenage foundlings who loiter in my house are outside talking to the ponies. My coffee has gone cold on my desk and I’m resisting the urge to have a look at Twitter and see if anybody has posted any new pictures of baby elephants.
In a little while, I’ll rummage about in the kitchen and see if I can find a Wagon Wheel or a stray Cadbury’s Mini Roll. The prat from the Tax Office has just departed, satisfied that at some point, I will get around to transferring some money across, and I’m already looking forward to his return visit next week. I’m going to be at this desk for another few hours, writing the second half of the fifth McAvoy novel. I’m eager to know what happens next.
This is my life. I like it. Not all of it, you understand. That would be insufferable. But I’m a full time novelist with children and ponies and Wagon Wheels and a gullible taxman. I really don’t have very much to complain about. And a lot of my good fortune is thanks to one writer, and one particular novel.
The writer in question is Val McDermid. The novel is A Place of Execution. And it will be my privilege to talk about both during my tour of the North in my role as the festival’s Reader in Residence as part of this year’s Big Read.
I did the same thing last year with a series of discussions about Casino Royale. The discussions were good fun. I turned up in a variety of libraries and halls and talked about why I loved the suave, dapper and unashamedly caddish James Bond. Then I defended him to the hilt as the womenfolk of Yorkshire and the North East accused Ian Fleming of being a chauvinistic thug, and his novel of being 50 shades of dull. I met a lot of interesting people. I was disagreed with in a whole host of regional accents. In a pub in South Shields I saw a 60-year-old woman pretend she was a panther on a pool table. I was an inadvertent part of the team that broke the world record for how many times a fire alarm can go off in a Travelodge before somebody commits murder. It was a hell of a week.
This year will be better. This year I’ll be talking about Val, and a book that may well be her masterpiece.
I read A Place of Execution about 12 years ago while still working as a journalist. My office was quite near the Hull branch of Waterstone’s and the staff there were very good about ignoring the fact that I spent a good three hours a day in there, reading novels in stages and leaning against the shelves.
I’d read a couple of Val’s Tony Hills books and enjoyed them. They were cleverly plotted, psychologically believable, and Hills was a terrific character. I picked up A Place of Execution simply because it had her name on it, and nearly put it down again when I realised it was that most indulgent and sigh-provoking of things – a standalone novel by an established series writer.
Still, I had no real enthusiasm for going back to the office and decided to give it a go. An hour later, I did something unthinkable. I bought it. Yes! A reader, buying an actual book in an actual bookshop. Those were the days.
To say I was hooked is an understatement. This novel grabbed me like a wrestler.
A Place of Execution opens in Winter, 1963. In a tiny hamlet in Derbyshire, a schoolgirl has gone missing. For the young George Bennett, a newly promoted inspector, it is the beginning of an enquiry that will haunt him for decades: a murder with no body, in a closed community that distrusts outsiders.
Decades later he finally tells his story to journalist Catherine Heathcote, but just when the book is poised for publication, Bennett unaccountably tries to pull the plug. He has new information which he refuses to divulge. Catherine is forced to re-investigate the past.
It is a sprawling, twisting, atmospheric tale with all the best elements of Greek tragedy and contemporary crime. The early scenes are so well drawn that when a character shivers, the reader shivers too. Pain is described but not revelled in. Heroes are flawed and villains human.
It is one of the novels that persuaded me to use my journalistic experiences to start writing authentic, believable crime fiction and propelled me into the career I have today. It hinted at the true crimes of Brady and Hindley and suffused a fictional tale with elementsw of realism. It showed me just what a crime novel could be. You can imagine my delight a few years ago when Val picked me for the New Blood panel at Harrogate and called me ‘exceptional’ on the front of my debut novel. I still haven’t quite got over that.
A Place of Execution is, in essence, one of the best crime books around and I can’t wait to talk about it.
Come along to one of the events. There will be insights, laughs, passionate discussions and shared opinions. I will digress, lose my thread, follow odd flights of fancy and lose my voice by around Wednesday. There may even be biscuits. Don’t miss it.