Critics are making a lot of the fact that unlike most of the current crop of TV detectives – Professor T, Van Der Valk, Ridley, for instance – DS Karen Pirie is, wow, a female. But is there more to Val McDermid’s character than her chromosomes?
Written in 2003, the first of six Karen Pirie novels, A Distant Echo has obviously been modernised a bit, with its talk of podcasts, ‘woke’ politics, white privilege, Karens and the ‘Me Too’ movement. But some things never change.
Pyrie (Lauren Lyle) is presented as a downtrodden female in a male-dominated police force – nothing new there, then. So when she’s put in charge of a cold case, the 25-year-old murder of a barmaid in St Andrews, Pirie worries that it’s all for show. But if she can prove herself, though, things might change…
It’s 1996, and three drunken students find a barmaid, Rosie, strangled and stabbed in St Andrews cathedral grounds. But did they have more to do with the death than they admit?
The crime is never solved, but 25 years later, a podcaster, Bel (Rakhee Thakrar) reopens the case, and the cops, somewhat reluctantly, order a case review, putting Pirie in charge for the ‘optics’. This doesn’t sit well with her on-off lover DS Phil Paralkha (Zack Wyatt), who was expecting the job, though her colleague DC Jason Murray (Chris Jenks), known as Mint, happily falls in with her investigation,
The three suspects, Alex, Tom and Sigmund, have become a lecturer, an artist and a surgeon, and obviously have something to hide – they denied knowing the victim at the time, though they drank in her pub, and apparently invited her to a party. Though the students’ alibis seem shakey, and the investigation seems to have been cursory, there’s no sign of a murder weapon or of a secondary crime scene, so the investigation goes nowhere.
A note of suspicion is sounded when Karen realises that the policewoman, Janice, who found Rosie’s body,
married one of Rosie’s brothers; and that Rosie had a baby by a student, John Stobie, and had it adopted, telling her family it had died.
Karen doesn’t get much help from Rosie’s thuggish brothers, or from Stobie, who denies being the father – so who was it?
Pirie’s boss Lees (Steve John Shepherd) tries to deflect her from investigating the adoption, but why?
Through flashbacks it’s revealed that the suspect students must have had Rosie’s body in the boot of a car which they then disposed of – but does that mean one of them killed her? Was one the father of her child?
Pirie gets her flatmate River to chase up some DNA leads, then confronts podcaster Bel, who it turns out has mountains of evidence; Bel points out that if not for her, the investigation might never have been revived. Certainly the three suspects are beginning to panic, and get together to try to agree on a new plan. One of them, Ziggy (Alec Newman) has a flashback to meeting Rosie at the party – so she did turn up after all, but who was she after?
Things take a not unexpected turn when Ziggy is killed in a hit-and-run – but who did it? His mates, to shut him up? Rosie’s vengeful brothers? Or podcaster Bel, whose background story we barely believe? Things get twistier next week.
The plot so far has been satisfyingly compelling – our theory at this stage is that the original police investigation was deliberately botched to conceal some unpleasant truths.
But the bigger question is, do we think that Karen Pirie is a compelling character? Well, so far, other than her having an unsatisfactory sex life, a bumbag and a fruity flat-mate, River Wilde (Emer Kenny, also the series’ writer and executive producer), we don’t know much about Karen. Emer Kenny describes her as being a cross between Helen Mirren in Prime Suspect and Sandra Bullock in Miss Congeniality – a combination of humour, toughness and rebellion.
Will we fall in love with Karen Pirie in the same way we have with, say, Vera Stanhope or Jane Tennison? She’s made a good wee start, but has a fair way to go.
Karen Pirie can be seen on ITV and ITV Hub in the UK