Review: Still Life

Val McDermid – Still Life

Published by Sphere, paperback £8.99. My review is of the Little Brown hardback edition (£20), which I bought new.

Still Life is the sixth Karen Pirie novel and Val McDermid’s 34th novel, and who knows what number crime novel I’ve read, but opening the covers I know that I will face something entirely new, because McDermid is never content with offering merely a variation on a theme of what she has created previously. She has often spoken in interviews of how she alternates writing different series and standalone novels because she gets bored otherwise, and to my mind this keeps all her books fresh and is thus rewarding for her readers.

Still Life opens with three fishermen pulling not the expected string of lobster creels out of the water of the Forth off Fife, but a dead body, leading to Detective Sergeant Daisy Mortimer facing her first post-mortem, and in the presence of her boss to boot. It’s definitely a murder case, and a recent one, the body having only been in the water a short time according to the pathologist, and he’s potentially a tourist if the French passport in his pocket in the name of Paul Allard is anything to go by.

Across in Edinburgh, DCI Karen Pirie is contemplating both the Sunday papers and Hamish MacKenzie when she gets a call about a skeleton found by a woman clearing her recently-deceased sister’s house – found in the garage, in a campervan that definitely was not part of the sister’s belongings. Karen shelves the awkward conversation with Hamish, and calls DC Jason “The Mint” Murray for an immediate trip to Perth before the scene is disturbed.

Paul Allard turns out to be a jazz musician, former French Foreign Legion soldier, and a British citizen under a different name: James Auld. He also turns out to be the brother of Iain Auld, one of Scotland’s most senior civil servants, who went missing a decade ago. James’s case is new, while Iain’s is stone cold – but since Karen reviewed it relatively recently, she is deemed the perfect person to take over as senior officer, including popping over to Paris and chasing leads with the help of Daisy, who speaks French. And in a search of James’s flat, they find some intriguing clues…

Leads are also being chased in the Perth skeleton case, with The Mint being sent off alone to check out a particularly urgent one – which turns out to be unlucky for him, but also offers a crucial chance to make a major breakthrough on the case.

There are deaths to be investigated in Still Life, but the violence is kept to a minimum, and it’s mostly described by the scientists, never indulging the point of view of the perpetrator. In fact, much of the pain inflicted here is emotional and psychological, though it’s seen as being just as harmful to those affected. There are also some shocking betrayals which pack a hefty punch.

While there is plenty to be serious about there are also lovely flashes of humour, from Hamish’s porridge (memorably created by McDermid in her short Cooking The Books YouTube series), to Daisy seemingly always eating, to tech whizz Tamsin’s teasing of The Mint. And there is much to enjoy in the descriptions of the journeys, landscapes and people they meet across Scotland, the north of England, Paris and both sides of the Irish border. 

Still Life’s underlying theme is art: Susan, whose garage the skeleton was found in, was in a relationship with an artist. James chooses a painting from his brother’s belongings as a memento; Iain and his wife collected paintings. Papers found in James’s flat are linked to the art world. A conversation with a fellow cop brings up something explosive to do with an art gallery; a series of paintings raise serious questions. But it’s not until well into the book that the reader’s perspective shifts and the abstract shapes begin to turn into a recognisable whole. It’s always a pleasure to re-read McDermid’s books and see what you missed the first time round because you couldn’t turn the pages fast enough to see what happened next; there is so much texture and depth. 

Balancing a fresh case with a cold one (or two, as we have here) allows McDermid to play with pacing – here some action; here some dogged digging through paperwork – but the tension is always mounting as we move towards the concluding revelations. In the closing pages, Karen interviews a crucial figure – in lesser hands this would be a dull, formulaic scene; instead I hardly dared breathe in case I missed anything.

I’m not giving you much detail about the plot as it’s a difficult book to write about without giving spoilers. However, there’s plenty to be said about Karen Pirie. There’s a line about 50 pages in: “Even though this was clearly a cold case, Karen did not subscribe to the notion that this meant she could drag her heels.” This is part of why she inspires respect and loyalty. She is impatient and hates the grind of desk work, while appreciating its importance; though she’s keen to stick to the rules because that’s how you get justice, she also knows that cutting the odd corner gives closure. She has no time for bosses more keen on budgets than catching bad guys, but she nurtures other professional relationships, creating a network filled with camaraderie. She likes quality coffee, finding new gins, and helping people without fuss. She is so real I feel I might bump into her on the street.

Karen Pirie started life as a useful incidental character but has blossomed into so much more. A cold case novel is a different beast to the standard police procedural, and McDermid and Karen are showing us how far you can stretch things in terms of the plots to be unravelled. More importantly, they’re showing us the breadth and depth of character development that series crime fiction allows, and I know that I will come back to these books time and time again to spend time with Karen. Put simply, Still Life is yet another jewel in the crown of the Queen of Crime.

The Distant Echo (HarperCollins, paperback £9.99) is part of the April selection for the Bloody Scotland Book Club, which you can join on Facebook: www.facebook.com/groups/bloodyscotlandbookclub. The live panel discussion takes place online on 28th April and will be posted on the festival’s YouTube channel shortly afterwards.
Check out my reviews of the previous Karen Pirie novel, Broken Ground, and of Val McDermid’s last novel, How The Dead Speak, featuring Tony Hill and Carol Jordan.

You can follow the author on Twitter here: @valmcdermid
Find her website at: www.valmcdermid.com

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