Past Lying by Val McDermid

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Past Lying by Val McDermid front cover

Publication of a new police procedural featuring Val McDermid’s intrepid Detective Chief Inspector Karen Pirie is something to get excited about. The streets of Edinburgh have never been so ominous – or 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 lockdown, thinking ‘too much already!’ but McDermid makes it an effective handicap to Pirie, whose investigation of a not-quite-stone-cold case must 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 sanitiser.

As ever, Pirie has a couple of pots bubbling of her own. One complication in her life is a subplot involving a Syrian refugee being hunted by assassins from his home country. He’s a friend of refugees Pirie helped previously (Out of Bounds, from 2016) and she installs this man in her flat. 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submitted by the estate of a deceased Tartan noir crime writer, Jake Stein, has run across the opening chapters of an unpublished manuscript.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 Edinbugh University student named Lara Hardie vanished.

It takes some negotiating around the restrictions, but Pirie and Mortimer secure a copy of the draft novel and begin to read. What Jake Stein has written compels them to investigate him as well. 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, thanks to his offensive personal behaviour. It seems he had only one friend left – 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 any of the six prior novels in this series, you may have run across DC Jason Murray. He’s not considered to be the brightest bulb but in this book he finally comes into his own. He has some serious growing up to do when his mother is hospitalised with COVID and his n’er-do-well brother breaks a bunch of rules to get into the intensive care unit to see her. Certainly, this was a heartbreaking aspect of the epidemic, that dying people and their desperate family members were separated.

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. And 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 person who has been murdered or, as in this case, has disappeared, wears a little thin. Maybe it’s a ‘greater good’ kind of thing.

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.

You might also like Pirie in her TV incarnation, or Sulari Gentill’s metafictional tour de force, The Woman in the Library.

Grove Atlantic

CFL Rating: 4 Stars

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