Book review: Past Lying, by Val McDermid

Val McDermid’s mastery of plot, and her confidence to let it unfold slowly, allows the improbable to ring true in this Covid-set DCI Pirie novel, writes Allan Massie

Val McDermid’s publishers have done her no service by describing her new novel as a thriller. It has many merits: it’s absorbing, even compelling, splendidly puzzling, very clever, but thrilling it isn’t.

It’s a puzzle novel. The reader is encouraged to find the way to the centre of a maze. The plot is improbable, but this doesn’t matter any more than it does in the best Agatha Christie novels.

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The setting is Edinburgh in the early and most disturbing days of the Covid lockdown, something that future readers may regard as every bit as improbable as the novel’s plot.

Val McDermid PIC: Charlotte GrahamVal McDermid PIC: Charlotte Graham
Val McDermid PIC: Charlotte Graham

McDermid evokes the Covid atmosphere – the restrictions imposed even on the Police – admirably and, I suppose, accurately. I put it like that because for some of us living in the country they were little more than a nuisance. DCI Karen Pirie, head of Police Scotland’s Historic Crime Unit, is temporally sharing a flat with her sergeant, Daisy Mortimer. This qualifies them to be a “bubble”. Then Jason, a junior member of the team, draws her attention to a message he has had from a friend who works in the National Library, something puzzling she has discerned in the archive of a recently dead crime novelist, Jake Stein. There may, it seems, be a link to the mysterious disappearance of a young Edinburgh student, Lara.

Stein was a best-seller whose career crumbled when he was found to have viciously portrayed a former girl-friend in a novel. I found this – his ostracism not the nasty depiction of the woman – a bit unconvincing; its unusual for notoriously bad behaviour to damage an author, but perhaps the world of Scottish crime-writing is a sweet and gentle place. No matter: his fall from grace serves the purpose.

Examination of the archive reveals the outline of the perfect crime. It will be a revenge on his chess partner, Ross McEwen, a rising crime writer who is stealing Stein’s thunder; not only his thunder but his estranged and recently divorced wife, a lawyer of the kind rarely treated with indulgence in Scottish crime writing.

DCI Pirie and her small team pursue the investigation doggedly, assisted of course by computers, the internet, FaceTime and such like. It is apparently dead easy for today’s police to acquire all sorts of information quickly and easily, more easily perhaps than the police do in real life. This is convenient for the novelist. And doubtless what readers of the internet age expect. It does mean that puzzles seem too easily solved.

McDermid plots her novels in masterly style. She holds the reader’s attention and provokes our curiosity. She keeps her narrative jogging along, and I doubt if many will lay aside this book, slow though the narrative often is. Her ingenuity commands respect, and she has the necessary novelistic gift of making the implausible seem right. This takes some doing, especially since the centrepiece of this book is unlikely. It takes skill to make the improbable ring true.

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I confess to finding DCI Pirie tiresomely self-righteous. Even while rebuking others for breaches of Covid regulations, she is prepared to break them when it suits her – in a good cause of course. She is what we used to call a prig. It says much for McDermid’s skill that I nevertheless found her acceptable, though I have had more enjoyment from McDermid’s Jordan-and-Hill novels in which her policewoman Carol Jordan makes rather a mess of her life. But many will find Pirie just right. In her cool self-satisfaction she might be a government minister.

Val McDermid is deservedly popular and now acclaimed as the Queen of Crime. She is a fine carpenter, her books always well-constructed. She has the confidence to take her time in the telling of her story and even though the elaborate plot at the centre of this novel borders on the incredible, she brings it off with admirable efficiency. At her best and, despite my dislike of her DCI Pirie, she is at her ingenious best here, she is almost in the PD James and Ruth Rendell class. I say “almost” because her sense and realisation of evil is less compelling. The murder in this novel is certainly evil, but the villain doesn’t to my mind ring true. He’s a cardboard man.

Past Lying, by Val McDermid, Sphere, £22​

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