Past Lying: A Karen Pirie Novel (Karen Pirie Novels, 7)
Prologue: “It had genuinely never crossed his mind that his best friend would actually commit a murder solely to demonstrate that the perfect crime was possible, and that he was capable of committing it. Not until he had to deal with the revelation that there was now a dead body in his garage.”
Bang! We’re off to the races on Val McDermid’s seventh DCI Karen Pirie outing, set in atmospheric Edinburgh, in April 2020, during the Covid lockdown. Streets are almost empty, but Karen and her colleagues, DS Daisy Mortimer and wingman Jason Murray, must overcome coronavirus impediments to investigate a peculiar tip brought to the Historical Cases Unit.
As head of HCU, Karen (via Jason) has received a query from an archivist at the National Library. A year ago, the novelist Jake Stein, a member of the “Tartan Noir School” of crime writing died (a bit of meta-humor from Scottish author McDermid?). When Stein’s papers were donated, among them was a partial novel, The Vanishing of Laurel Oliver. The librarian’s curiosity was piqued when she noticed a possible connection to the famous disappearance of a real woman, Lara Hardie.
Daisy asks Karen: “Do you think there’s any chance this has autobiographical elements?” Karen replies, “Authors always deny that when readers ask them. But I had a quick look at some online interviews with Stein . . . and there seemed to be a lot of similarities between Stein and Jamie Cobain [the writer/protagonist in the manuscript].” Karen and Daisy begin linking the novel to the unsolved “vanishing” of Hardie, learning that many details in Stein’s chapters are eerily like those in the real-life case. Thus begins a scrutiny of the archival work and chasing information about Hardie, Jake Stein, and his writing rival, Ross McEwen.
The comments about the mental imaginings of suspense writers are sprinkled throughout along with those of the two fictional authors—Stein and McEwen—and the two inset novel’s characters—Cobain and Thomas. One can picture a gleeful McDermid chuckling about her plot’s premise—a novel within a novel and an author committing the perfect murder—and making subtle, puckish fun at herself and crime fiction writers. No doubt she loved inserting lines: “An amateur would have thought his job done. But Jamie [the author, Cobain, in the inset novel] was no amateur. When it came to murder, he’d been an expert for years.”
Despite the restrictions inherent with Covid regulations, the HCU team manages numerous onsite interactions with suspects, witnesses, and each other, as well as dealing with some personal relationships, such as Jason’s mother incubated due to Covid. While many writers have avoided this period because of the plot constraints, McDermid forges ahead and creates almost the same level of activity as we expect from works in this genre.
While the author’s style drives the story with excellent pacing, she takes the time to insert some arch characterizations: “Jake Stein had cultivated an air of hail-fellow-well-met camaraderie, but to a practiced listener like Karen . . . [he] had false modesty down to a fine art, but she reckoned it hid a pomposity that would be easily pricked. . . .”
After reading Past Lying, crime fiction writers throughout the world will go to bed fantasizing how they might commit the perfect crime, who they would kill, and where. And crime fiction aficionados will be inspired to concoct their own fanciful schemes, trying to match their murder-smarts against those of their favorite authors.
McDermid’s novel is a generously sized, big book with an entertaining puzzle within a puzzle and a great tongue-in-cheek attitude. When the reader comes across this remark, they will certainly make a substitution at the end: “Just when you thought there was nothing new under the crime fiction sun, along comes . . . [Val McDermid].”