Still Life sees the return of Val McDermid’s DCI Karen Pirie for her sixth case. For readers new to the series, Pirie is tough, intuitive and compassionate – qualities which stand her in good stead as leader of the Historic Crimes Unit. She has her vulnerable side, and it is never more obvious than when she contemplates the emotional scars inflicted by the murder of her former colleague and lover Phil Parhatka. In the previous book, Broken Ground, she met Hamish Mackenzie, a wealthy businessman and gentleman crofter. They are not completely ‘an item’. For Karen, the jury is still out.
McDermid loves nothing better than to juggle plot strands, and here we have two absolute beauties or, should I say, bodies. In the Blue Corner we have the corpse of a male (happily for the police complete with passport in his back pocket) recovered by fisherman tending their lobster pots. In the Red Corner is the desiccated corpse of a woman, discovered in an elderly and tarpaulined camper van, rusting away in a suburban garage.
The dead man is quickly identified as the brother of a long-disappeared Scottish public figure. Iain Auld, depending on your cultural terms of reference, did either a Reggie Perrin, John Stonehouse or Lord Lucan a decade earlier. He has officially been declared dead, but Pirie’s antennae are set all of a quiver, as her investigations into Auld’s disappearance have been fruitless.
The dead woman? Just as complex and convoluted. She may have been a capriciously talented jewellery designer, neither seen nor heard of for months after a troubled residence in a Highland artists’ commune. Then again, she might be the designer’s lesbian lover, a minor talent in the world of water colour landscapes.
McDermid creates her usual magic in this brilliant police procedural. Yes, all boxes are ticked, including starchy superior police officers, duplicitous figures at the heart of the world of Fine Art, sexual jealousy and crimes passionelle, government corruption and likeable (but slightly gormless) junior coppers. Long time fans of the former director of Raith Rovers FC will know that there is more – so much more. She pulls us into the narrative from page one. We are smitten, hooked, ensnared, trapped in her web – choose your own metaphor
Val McDermid is a political person, but she generally wears her views lightly. She cannot restrain herself, however, from having a little dig at her fellow Kirkcaldian Gordon Brown for ‘bottling out’ of an election in 2009 and thus succumbing the following year to a decade or more of rule by the ‘auld enemy’. The lengthy gestation period of novels usually prevents authors from being totally topical, but the final pages of Still Life have DCI Pirie and her crew clearing their desks and preparing for a Covid-19 lockdown. Karen, as we might expect, is made of stern stuff, and she faces an uncertain future with determination:
” – people would always need the polis – and even in a pandemic, murder should never go unprosecuted.”