Lauren Lyle brings Val McDermid's Karen Pirie to life

The Outlander actor takes on a role that champions change

Lauren Lyle stars at DS Karen Pirie in ITV's adaptation of Val McDermid's The Distant Echo, the first of her Karen Pirie detective series. Pic: ITV/Patrick Smith
Lauren Lyle stars at DS Karen Pirie in ITV's adaptation of Val McDermid's The Distant Echo, the first of her Karen Pirie detective series. Pic: ITV/Patrick Smith

A young woman detective, fighting for a place in a male world in which she is underrated, who likes a Bacardi Breezer of a weekend and hails from the grittier side of Fife, Karen Pirie is not your usual telly tec. There’s no broken relationship or traumatic past to overcome, no psychic abilities or superpowers, she’s just doing her job fighting crime. However, by dint of tenacity, talent and toil, she happens to be very good at it and when a cold case murder resurfaces, she lands herself a leading role. A bit like the actor Lauren Lyle, who plays the iconic detective sergeant in the three part ITV adaptation of the bestselling crime series by Val McDermid.

“It was really exciting to play, because it was like me thinking ‘how have I managed to get into this responsibility, of this character and this show, and can I do it?” says Lyle talking about her first leading role from her home in London.

“Karen is an underestimated, understated hero who is accidentally iconic in that she doesn't mean to be cool or as good as she is. She's willing to do whatever she needs to and has less of a boundary around rules and why she should follow them. Her drive is to do what’s right.”

Lauren Lyle stars at Karen Pirie in the TV adaptation of Val McDermid's Fife-set detective novel, The Distant Echo. Wardrobe Credits: Cashmere Blend Jumper by Tods, Cotton Shirt by Tods, Rose Gold & Topaz Ring by Pomellato. Team Credits: Photographer: Jemima Marriott/Stylist: Krishan Parmar/Hair: Diego Miranda/Make up: Charlotte Kraftman

When teenager Rosie Duff (Anna Russell-Martin) was murdered in St Andrews in 1996, three students were discovered at the scene, but a lack of forensic evidence meant no charges were brought. Now a true crime podcaster is searching for answers about the murder and why it was never solved so the case is re-opened with Pirie at the helm.

“I don’t think we’ve seen a really eager, excited, young female detective ever on either American or British TV. And I’ve researched them all,” she laughs.

“Usually it’s the dark story of a detective who’s gone through something bad and is trying to rebuild their life. But Karen is at the beginning of her career and ready for it, although she’s terrified because she thinks she has no idea what she’s doing. But it turns out she does. And when she finds out she’s only been given the case because she’s a woman, she has to prove herself.”

Lyle credits the Karen Pirie team, creators of Bodyguard and Line of Duty, plus a supportive crew and cast for putting their trust in the 29-year-old to bring McDermid’s character to life.

Lauren Lyle stars as Karen Pirie in the crime thriller set in Fife.

“It was easily the best thing I’ve ever done, an absolute joy, despite the fact it’s obviously quite dark. It was such a new experience and a wild ride to take the responsibility of leading a show. But I got a lot of say in who Karen was, right down to what she wore and the way she spoke and walked.”

To get the Fife accent right, Lyle, who was born and raised in Glasgow, spent time in and around Fife, researching the role.

“Karen’s from Methil so I just went there and listened. Also John Lumsden who plays one of the students is from just outside of St Andrews and he said if you need any help with the accent just let me know, so I did.”

“I really got a feel for how different Methil and Leven are in comparison to somewhere like St Andrews, which is not too far away. The range of lives that can be lived is something to be very aware of and I think the show represents that.”

Lauren Lyle as Marsali in 'Outlander', Season 5 - 2020. Pic: Starz!/Kobal/Shutterstock

Lyle also got help from a real life Karen Pirie who she met on a night shoot guarding the set at St Andrews cathedral, where the murder takes place.

“Maybe my first night on set there were two police officers, one a girl with short blonde hair, my height, about my age and I went over and started chatting. I asked if she was from St Andrews and she said ‘no, I’m from Methil’. I said ‘You’re from where Karen Pirie’s from, you look like what I look like in the show, you’re the same height, same build, same age, you are the real Karen Pirie!’. She had the accent, the whole vibe and it was so helpful and cool to meet a real version.”

Lyle and the production also have the blessing of Val McDermid as they bring her iconic detective to life in the adaptation of The Distant Echo, the first in a series of six and counting.

“I met Val two weeks in and I was like ‘Oh my god, I really hope she likes me and was OK with the Fife accent. She was, and is thrilled with the show, happy with Emer (Kenny’s adaptation, so it was great going in with that.”

Lauren Lyle at the BAFTA 195 Reopening Celebration in London in May. Pic: Scott Garfitt/Shutterstock for BAFTA

With a podcast suggesting the original investigation was flawed, influenced by a victim blaming culture, does Lyle think things changed in the intervening 25 years?

“Things definitely haven’t changed enough,” she says. “We’re all talking about it a bit more and are a bit more aware but I think guys need to be doing more to support women.

“I’ve got a niece and want her to know she’s in a safe place growing up. I want the police to be doing more about how we can walk around the streets at night. I think that’s what this show does, has Karen Pirie living the reality of what it is to be a young woman in 2022.

“Also it’s written by a woman and is seen through a woman’s lens. We’re still seeing women being murdered all the time but we haven’t seen what it feels like for a woman to try and have that stop. It’s not about showing gory details for entertainment, it’s about why this keeps happening and how we can stop it.”

Karen Pirie is very much a contemporary drama, highlighting progress with advances in forensics leading to the re-opening of cold cases while the impact of new technology features in the form of podcasting and its role in solving crime.

Lyle is a big fan of podcasts, including Serial [an investigative journalism podcast hosted by Sarah Koenig] and True Crime, and she also has her own podcast She's a Rec, in which she interviews “really cool women about other women and the albums, books and film, by people that aren’t men basically, that have influenced their lives.”

Lauren Lyle as Marsali, Cesar Domboy as Fergus, Sam Heughan as Jamie Fraser, Caitriona Balfe as Claire Randall, Richard Rankin as Roger Wakefield and Sophie Skelton as Brianna Randall Fraser in 'Outlander', 2020. Pic: Starz!/Kobal/Shutterstock

Launched in the 2020 lockdown, she’s just finished a second series and interviewed the likes of House of Dragon’s Olivia Cooke, a United Nations bomb disposal expert, Outlander’s Caitriona Balfe from Outlander and Ellie Rowsell, lead singer of the indie rock band Wolf Alice.

“A podcast is such an effective way to reach people and again, I think that’s something we’ve not seen in a show. It’s such a great way to tell the story and keep it relevant to where we are in the world now and how people relate.”

With six Karen Pirie books out there, does Lyle think there is another TV adaptation to come?

“I hope so. If everyone watches it and likes it and lets the world know. It was the best thing I’ve ever done and a really important story. It’s dark, but also sometimes funny, as well as meaning something. So to be a part of that, that really doesn’t come along that often especially for a young woman in her twenties. I never thought I’d get to play a detective, let alone now, in something I don’t think we’ve seen before. I feel very excited and privileged.”

Until know, best known for playing Marsali Fraser, Jamie Fraser’s step daughter in ­Outlander since 2017, Lyle recently played an ill-fated peace campaigner in the BBC submarine drama Vigil, as well as appearing in Tell It to the Bees (2018), with Anna Paquin and Holliday Grainger.

In the meantime Lyle has just finished playing the lead in a film called Mercy Falls, on which she was also executive producer.

“I shot that at the beginning of this year and it was the first time I’ve exec produced so that was really cool getting a bit more responsibility and control.”

“It’s all about a bunch of young people that go into the woods on a hiking holiday and one of them is not what she seems.”

Hiking turns hunter and hunted in the film which has a horror slant, something Lyle loves, although she wasn’t always so brave, admitting that a viewing of Saint Maud saw her fleeing her new flat and checking into the nearest hotel.

“I’d just moved in and it was still very 1950s and had a haunted feel. I thought I can’t be here in this scary place until I’ve renovated it. But yes, I do love horror and it was really fun to be part of. It’s not scary when you’re on set. It’s all very technical, and not very glamorous - fake blood is very sticky.”

Lyle is currently working on another film that she can’t discuss but it’s keeping her very occupied right now.

“The people involved had seen Vigil and Outlander and are quite top dogs in Hollywood so when they asked me to be part of it I was really thrilled. It’s exciting, but I can’t say anything - yet.”

Lyle still can’t believe the way her career has gone, or sometimes that she’s even acting in the first place as she doesn’t hail from a showbiz family, with a banker father and PE teacher mother.

“They all did ‘normal’ jobs and I think they can’t quite believe I’ve done it. When I got Karen Pirie, my dad said, ‘that’s Val McDermid Lauren, did you know that’s ‘the queen of crime’? I still can’t really believe it sometimes.

Lyle’s first love was gymnastics, in which she represented both Scotland and Great Britain, but she always loved drama.

“I applied to drama school for four or five years and could not get in. So I moved to London and did bits in theatre, then when I got my first job at The Old Vic in The Crucible, I got in. My heart sank because by then I didn’t want to go. I was on stage every night and understudied three female leads so I sort of had drama school training for six months in this massive West End show with some of the biggest and most seasoned theatre actors in the country.”

“Actually, gymnastics got me that job,” she says and laughs. “They were looking for girls who could move as if possessed, so I got my first job half based on the fact I could walk on my hands and do backflips.”

After this came time with the National Youth Theatre, Holby City, the BAFTA-winning BBC drama Broken with Sean Bean and Outlander.

“After The Crucible, I was ‘right, I’m kind of doing this now, I think I’m going to keep going’, and I think I had blind confidence that I could. I didn’t know how, had no template around how to do it, I just sort of did it. I was working six different jobs - reception, handing out flyers, phone jobs, then I suddenly got Outlander and that’s when it all changed.

“Outlander was my break into being able to work as an actor all the time. For four, five years, I really learnt what it was to work in film and TV. So it was an amazing experience. Outlander’s like a family. I grew up on the show and loved it.”

“It’s been a real graft over time but it’s been great. And it feels rewarding to get this now. I think that’s why with Karen Pirie I was always on set and felt like I was hosting a party, every day. I just wanted everyone to have a good time. I thought, we’re saying something that’s relevant and important and we should enjoy doing that.”

Karen Pirie airs at 8pm from Sunday 25 September on ITV and ITV Hub.

Wardrobe Credits: Cashmere Blend Jumper by Tods, Cotton Shirt by Tods, Rose Gold & Topaz Ring by Pomellato.

Team Credits: Photographer: Jemima Marriott/Stylist: Krishan Parmar/Hair: Diego Miranda/Make up: Charlotte Kraftman

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