Publication of a new police procedural featuring Val McDermid’s intrepid Detective Chief Inspector Karen Pirie is something to get excited about. In Past Lying, the streets of Edinburgh have never been so ominous—and empty—as when this story takes place in April 2020, at the height of the covid epidemic. Authors were of mixed minds about whether to write about covid, thinking “too much already!” but McDermid makes the lockdown an effective handicap to Pirie, whose investigation of a not-quite-stone-cold case must (at least in theory) accommodate the public health restrictions.
Pirie and Detective Sergeant Daisy Mortimer are camped out in Pirie’s boyfriend Hamish’s fancy flat while he has relocated up north to tend his sheep farm in the Highlands. He’s bought a former gin still up there and is manufacturing hand sanitizer.
As ever, Pirie has a couple of pots bubbling away. One complication in her life is a subplot involving a Syrian refugee being hunted by assassins from his home country. I’ve always admired how McDermid keeps two powerful story strands going, such that when she switches from one to the other, I’m instantly engrossed again. In this instance, the secondary plot isn’t as compelling as it might be, and the exigencies of covid mean there is less interaction with some of Pirie’s colleagues in various crime labs who serve such a satisfying role in other works.
The main plot is more squarely in the domain of Pirie’s Historic Cases Unit. In touch with her by telephone, Detective Constable Jason ‘The Mint’ Murray reports that a librarian, reviewing papers submitted by the estate of a deceased Tartan Noir crime writer, Jake Stein, has run across the opening chapters of an unpublished manuscript. They describe a murder that sounds eerily similar to an unsolved disappearance from the previous year, in which an Edinburgh University student named Lara Hardie vanished.
What Jake Stein has written compel Pirie and Mortimer to dig into his past. Stein was apparently not a very nice guy; he was in the middle of a marital calamity; and his formerly successful career was on the skids. His only remaining friend is another author who’d come and play chess with him and where Stein would talk about “the perfect murder.” The parallels between Stein’s real life and his fictional book are striking, so that the narrative takes on the characteristics of nested dolls. I found myself having to stop and think, am I reading Stein’s book? Or about him?
If you have read other McDermid books featuring Pirie (this is the seventh), you may have run across DC Jason Murray previously. You may recall he’s sometimes considered not the brightest bulb, but in this book, he finally comes into his own. I don’t know why, maybe it’s the stresses of lockdown, but I found Pirie a less sympathetic character than usual. At times, she’s almost mean. She pays lip service to the lockdown rules, but ignores them whenever she wants to. The justification that every day is important to the family of a disappeared person wore a little thin.
A crime novelist is an ideal character to obsess about the perfect crime, and Stein’s draft-cum-confession, as you read it, raises a multitude of good questions—not necessarily relevant to his plot, nor his personal life, but about Pirie’s investigation. Nesting dolls again.
While McDermid has certainly earned the sobriquet of Britain’s ‘Queen of Crime,’ I confess to a slight disappointment with this latest book. Of course, it’s still head and shoulders above many crime novels, and if you like the Pirie character, you won’t want to miss it.