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Past Lying: A Karen Pirie Novel


Past Lying: A Karen Pirie Novel

Set at the very start of Scotland’s lockdowns in April 2020, PAST LYING continues Val McDermid’s Karen Pirie series and is one of the best books she has ever written. DCI Pirie heads up the cleverly named HCU, or Historic Cases Unit, as a way to play down the negative connotations that might be attached to a standard term like “cold case.”

I was completely hooked by the brief prologue that references Patricia Highsmith’s classic, STRANGERS ON A TRAIN, and alludes to someone who committed murder just to prove he could do it. I was eager to see how this would play into Pirie’s newest case.

"PAST LYING is a wonder to behold. I place it directly next to McDermid’s finest works, like A PLACE OF EXECUTION and THE WIRE IN THE BLOOD. Her use of the pandemic is one of the most clever I have seen to date..."

Pirie’s team member, DC Jason Murray, brings the idea for their next investigation to light. He receives a call from a contact at the National Library who turns his attention to an unfinished novel by the recently deceased writer Jake Stein titled The Vanishing of Laurel Oliver. The finished part of the manuscript seems to mirror exactly a famous cold case involving the disappearance of Lara Hardie, an Edinburgh college student and a fledgling writer.

To make matters even more interesting, it seems that Stein is directly implicating himself and another well-known writer as the responsible parties. The incidents within the tale, with thinly shrouded name changes for all characters involved, outline a situation where two murder mystery writers and avid chess opponents get caught up in a vicious triangle.

The lead character gets divorced only to find out that his ex-wife has been having an affair with his literary friend and chess partner. This prompts him to plot out the “perfect” murder, whereby a young literary/writing major is lured to a destination to go over her work but instead is strangled to death. The ensuing events that include burying the body on his friend’s property are exquisitely illustrated in spine-chilling fashion. Pirie, Murray and the rest of the team are quite interested in diving into this case to break the ennui that the pandemic lockdown has wrought.

Among the chapters that are delivered from different points of view are the direct excerpts from Stein’s manuscript, which Pirie hopes can serve as his posthumous murder confession. This is such a brilliantly conceived plot line that I was squirming with glee as I turned each page. McDermid is in rare form here, and the book never fails to entertain and surprise as the narrative plows forward.

We also experience a very humanistic side story that sees Murray’s elderly mother contracting COVID-19 and being hospitalized. With the lockdown enforcements, he is unable to leave the city to visit her. So Murray is quite surprised when he learns that he is wanted for aggressively trying to break into the hospital to see her. The truth is that someone got a hold of his uniform that was left at his mother’s place and attempted to use his identity as a policeman to their advantage.

Pirie finds that the character of Laurel Oliver suffered from the same malady as Lara --- atonic seizures --- which would have made her easy prey if she suffered an attack in the presence of someone who had ill intentions towards her. Believing she has her smoking gun, Pirie steps around the local lockdown rules to bulldog herself into the case. It turns out that what Stein left behind is just the tip of the iceberg, and nothing may be as it appears on the surface.

PAST LYING is a wonder to behold. I place it directly next to McDermid’s finest works, like A PLACE OF EXECUTION and THE WIRE IN THE BLOOD. Her use of the pandemic is one of the most clever I have seen to date, and the story within a story that constantly references such greats as Agatha Christie and the aforementioned Highsmith makes this a novel that cannot be missed.

Reviewed by Ray Palen on November 17, 2023

Past Lying: A Karen Pirie Novel
by Val McDermid

  • Publication Date: November 14, 2023
  • Genres: Fiction, Mystery, Suspense, Thriller
  • Hardcover: 452 pages
  • Publisher: Atlantic Monthly Press
  • ISBN-10: 0802161499
  • ISBN-13: 9780802161499