Still Life by Val McDermid

Reviewed by Rod McLary

The title of this latest thriller from Val McDermid may conjure up for a new reader images of paintings of fruit and flowers by the Old Masters.  If that is what has happened, then it is not entirely wide of the mark.  Paintings and artists do appear in the novel but are of a very different kind – and not entirely above board.

As always with Ms McDermid and her protagonist Detective Chief Inspector Karen Pirie – head of Police Scotland’s Historical Crimes Unit – there is at least one murder to be solved even if it did take place some years before.

One freezing morning, a man and his son set out in their fishing boat to haul in their creels and their catch.  What they have caught instead is a body – the body of a man who was the prime suspect in a murder which occurred ten years previously.  DCI Karen Pirie and her ‘bagman’ Detective Constable James Murray are handed the case.  At the same time, they are also involved in another case where a skeleton was found in an abandoned campervan.

s there a connection between these three deaths of which at least two are suspicious?  Well, that is the question which is yet to be answered as this enthralling tale of lies, betrayals and secrets unfolds.  However, the path towards the truth is never an easy one.  DCI Pirie has to contend with her new lover who perhaps is a little too prepared to watch over her; the imminent release from prison of the man who killed some four years ago her then lover; and a rather tense relationship [marked by mutual dislike] with her superior Assistant Chief Constable Ann Markie – better known among the ranks as Dog Biscuit.

For the reader, the thrill of the chase as DCI Pirie and DC Murray, along with a new member of the team DS Daisy Mortimer, pursue their quarry is matched only by the interest in the team’s backstories.  The star of the show is of course the hunt for the killer/s.  A combination of good detective work and DCI Pirie’s ability to work miracles in obtaining quick results from technicians and others – whether results of DNA testing, fingerprints, warrants to enter property or to arrest a suspect – means the pace of the story never slackens.  There are even moments of great tension when one police officer goes missing and it takes some little time to locate the errant officer.

Although the storyline requires DCI Pirie to travel to France, Ireland and England, it is at its heart well and truly based in Scotland.  There is a scattering of Scottish words to add verisimilitude to its location and while some of these are quite obscure [‘thrawn’ and ‘gallus’ for example: meaning ‘crooked’ and ‘bold’ respectively] they do not distract the reader.  Similarly, the reader may be given a brief tutorial in ‘craniofacial morphanalysis’ but again it adds verisimilitude to the nature of the story.

As Still Life is now the sixth novel with DCI Pirie at its centre, faithful readers would already know something of her history.  But the continuing personal stories across all six novels do not intrude on or take attention away from the main purpose of this book – that is, tracking down the killer/s – but complement it by adding a human dimension to the characters.  Almost all of them in his/her own way is quite likeable and the reader will care what happens to them.  However, it is not necessary to have read any of the previous DCI Pirie novels to enjoy this one as they stand alone and there are enough glimpses of the history for any new reader to fully immerse him/herself in the new book.

Val McDermid has crafted a fine thriller which has elements of a police investigation, scientific and forensic examinations, psychological insights and human interest.  These elements are woven together to create an enthralling and engaging story which will more than satisfy any aficionado of British crime stories.

Still Life

[2020]

by Val McDermid

Hachette

ISBN 978 1 4087 1229 0

436pp; $32.99

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