Place of Execution (courtesy: Amazon) and Val McDermid © Getty Images
Place of Execution (courtesy: Amazon) and Val McDermid © Getty Images

Place of Execution, a crime novel by the reputed Scottish writer Val McDermid, is, like most of her works, a riveting read. However, Arunabha Sengupta is intrigued by a fascinating cricketing reference in the very first paragraph.

Val McDermid is Scottish. A crime writer and a renowned one.

Ostensibly one finds little link between this Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and the noble game. However, the land where she hails from often unearths curious connections with cricket.

Take Bodyline. Douglas Jardine. And the oft forgotten fact that he was Scottish.

Take the tragic Archie Jackson. He died at 23, played for Australia, but was born to Scottish parents in a small town near Glasgow.

And if you sometimes wonder how the South African Tony Greig qualified to play for the English team, it was due to his Scottish parentage.

In not quite similar a vein lies the thread binding McDermid to cricket.

In late 2012, McDermid was signing books during an event at the University of Sunderland. She was promoting her then latest work Vanishing Point. A woman walked up to her and asked her to autograph a Top of the Pops annual which contained a picture of the disgraced late television presenter Jimmy Savile. As McDermid, somewhat taken aback and rather reluctant, started penning down her signature, this woman threw some ink at her and legged it for the open spaces. Later, this 64-year-old woman was arrested and convicted for assault. It seemed that she had not taken kindly to something McDermid had written about her family in the non-fiction book A Suitable Job for a Woman.

It is just a coincidence that the woman in question is named Sandra Botham. No, there is no relation to the great English all-rounder, but it is intriguing all the same.

But, this article is not to discuss the ink attack.

It is about another of McDermid’s works, A Place of Execution. Published in 1999, the novel won the Los Angeles Times Book Prize, the 2001 Dilys Award, was shortlisted for both the Gold Dagger and the Edgar Award. It was also selected by The New York Times as one of the most notable books of the year.

Set in Scardale, Derbyshire, it is a mystery surrounding a girl who goes missing in the winter of 1963. The tale of detection by Detective Inspector George Bennett forms half of the plot, and the other half comprises of journalist Catherine Heathcote writing a story of the investigation in 1998.

According to some this is the best book by McDermid, and comes with an intriguing twist in the tail. Yet, according to me, the tale tends to drag in patches and is a tad too long-winded on occasions. Also, the tail did have the potential to pack a huge amount of punch, but petered out as more than slightly predictable. It was as if the men to come in at 9, 10 and 11 were Richard Hadlee, Richie Benaud and Jason Gillespie … but this formidable tail managed just a mere 25 runsbetween them.

However, the novel does carry a haunting effect all through and mostly comes across as a riveting read.
Especially striking isthe description of the severe winter faced by that part of the world, in fact I would say that it is one of the highlights of the novel.

And therein lies the clincher for the cricket addict who doubles up as a connoisseur of detective fiction.

The very first paragraph reads: “Like Alison Carter, I was born in Derbyshire in 1950. Like her, I grew up familiar with the limestone dales of the White Peak, no stranger to the winter blizzards that regularly cut us off from the rest of the country. It was in Buxton, after all, that snow once stopped play in a county cricket match in June.

Can a true aficionado of books and cricket put the volume down after that?

Yes, the famed match between Lancashire and Derbyshire began on May 31, 1975 in Buxton. The first day was all about extreme heat, shirtless spectators, ice-creams gulped down with Clive Lloyd and Frank Hayes bludgeoning their ways to hundreds as the visitors declared their innings at 477 for 5. Derbyshire were two down for 25 by the time stumps were drawn.

After Sunday’s rest, a hailstorm followed on Monday. And then came the snow. When umpires Dickie Bird and Dusty Rhodes inspected the wicket, they had snow up to their boots. And Lloyd hurled a snowball at Farokh Engineer. At least that is what is reported in The Telegraph. (being aware of the reputation of the last-named cricketer, I sincerely hope that the source for this last bit is authentic).

There was no play on that day, but the following morning Peter Lee and Peter Lever dismissed the home batsmen for 42 and 87. Even snow could not really save Derbyshire.

And there was McDermid, referring to that very match at Buxton. It is the same town from where the police force operates in the novel. Scardale is a hazardous drive away from the town, and is full of secluded, sometimes sinister, individuals, who look at the external world with suspicion.

Yes, it is a good read … and the cricketing reference in the very first paragraph comes as a huge bonus. Italso helps that Inspector Bennett is described as a cricketer of considerable skill.