Karen Pirie review – this female-led crime drama absolutely sings

Humour, confidence and charm are perfectly blended in this suspenseful adaptation of Val McDermid’s bestseller. As its young female detective tackles a cold case it really belts along

There’s no new evidence to justify a review of the 25-year-old unsolved murder of young barmaid Rosie Duff, but “some woke millennial’s found a microphone” – AKA started a podcast – and so the top brass of Fife’s finest must bestir themselves. When they put together a team to re-examine the case, the optics demand a young female lead detective. Enter Karen Pirie, the eponymous heroine of the latest adaptation of one of veteran crime writer Val McDermid’s bestsellers, The Distant Echo.

It’s such a relief when a crime drama isn’t afraid to be funny. The vast majority of them fall into the EastEnders trap of forbidding characters too immersed in dark emotional/situational/caff-based turmoil to react with humour. You know, like humans instinctively, definingly do. It’s very odd and – in every sense – makes for an incredibly and unnecessarily dreary time for us all.

ITV’s Karen Pirie, by contrast might be an unusually long adaptation of a single book, with three two-hour episodes, but it absolutely sings. The story belts along, as you would expect from the McDermid source material; it’s meaty, well-paced and surefooted. The purposeful Pirie, played by Outlander’s Lauren Lyle is (again, refreshingly) a non-neurotic, inwardly untortured professional, as imperfect as the next gal but not fatally flawed, burdened by a dark personal secret or sporting one marked characteristic instead of a character. The script and Lyle blend determination, confidence and charm in perfect proportions as she navigates her way through the cold case, the politics around it and the obstacles thrown up by time, happenstance and the murderer’s – presumably ongoing – desire not to get caught.

Rosie’s body – she was throttled, although she died of blood loss from a stomach wound – was discovered by three students who have now grown up to be a surgeon, a university lecturer and an artist. They were interviewed by the police at the time but never charged, despite inconsistencies in their stories. They are still in touch in the present day and worried about the new attention on the case. Podcaster Bel (a fabulously irritating creation, played by Rakhee Thakrar, hopefully enjoying the change from her more usual good-girl roles) insinuates heavily that one or all are guilty of Duff’s possible rape and definite murder.

We follow Pirie and her even younger, willing-but-is-he-able? underling, Mint (because his surname is Murray and we are in Scotland), played by Sex Education’s Chris Jenks, as they gather evidence old and new. The opening episode sets up a fine plethora of possibilities. Was Rosie meeting one of the students when she sneaked out of the pub for an assignation with a mystery man she would not tell her friend and fellow pint-puller Iona about? Who is the father of the child she had three years before her death, and why did she tell her family the baby died when, in fact, it was adopted? Her brothers are known hard men then and now – could they have killed her?

The questions go on: is there anything to the fact that Rosie was brutalised in one place and then brought to the cathedral graveyard to die? Was it a ritualistic murder, a crime of passion or a family horror? Where was the first crime scene, where is the murder weapon and why didn’t the police investigate more thoroughly at the time? Simple attrition (the case went cold, the media lost interest, the lead investigator got promoted), misogyny (Bel’s podcast notes that, as an outgoing young woman with an evident sex life, Rosie was not “the perfect victim”)? Or was it something else?

Running beneath the main story is Pirie’s embryonic relationship with a colleague, DS Phil Parhatka (Zach Wyatt). “Approach the shower slowly,” she warns him. “It hasn’t seen a naked man in some time” – which thickens the stew and, without becoming didactic, adds a way of examining the racism and sexism suffusing the force.

The closing scene twists the kaleidoscope again, and Pirie’s careful arrangement of hints, possible clues and tentative theories explodes – and so must be settled in a new way.

With all three episodes under my belt, I can confirm that the twists and turns continue to ratchet up the suspense before the whole thing is satisfyingly resolved. There is one element, emerging late in the story, that didn’t quite ring as soundly true as the magnificently enjoyable rest of it, but, a) you may not agree, and b) it seemed a small price to pay nevertheless. Wire in the Blood, based on McDermid’s Tony Hill and Carol Jordan books, ran for six series. On the basis of her first outing, I’d wish at least as much – if not more – for Karen Pirie.


Lucy Mangan

The GuardianTramp

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