Source: Review copy
Publication: 20 August 2020 in the UK from Little Brown and 6th October 2020 in the US from Grove Atlantic
My thanks to publishers Grove Atlantic for a digital copy of this book for review purposes.
‘The bodies never stay buried forever . . .’
On a freezing winter morning, fishermen pull a body from the sea. It is quickly discovered that the dead man was the prime suspect in a decade-old investigation, when a prominent civil servant disappeared without trace. DCI Karen Pirie was the last detective to review the file and is drawn into a sinister world of betrayal and dark secrets.
But Karen is already grappling with another case, one with even more questions and fewer answers. A skeleton has been discovered in an abandoned campervan and all clues point to a killer who never faced justice – a killer who is still out there.
In her search for the truth, Karen uncovers a network of lies that has gone unchallenged for years. But lies and secrets can turn deadly when someone is determined to keep them hidden for good . .
I’ve read and really enjoyed all the Karen Pirie books to date, but none as much as this one. The stars seemed to have aligned for Still Life and the prose in this novel flows like a sparkling stream with dazzling flashes of light as the sun bounces off the water.
It’s a pre-Covid19 novel, but only just, and McDermid uses the lightest of fleeting touches to acknowledge what’s coming, which makes this book feel bang up to date, without burdening us with the awfulness of the actuality, which feels spot on to me.
DCI Karen Pirie has two cases to deal with in this novel, both with an artistic element to them. The first is the case of a skeleton found in a camper van in the garage of a douce Perth house, hidden under a tarpaulin.
The owner has recently died; she lived alone, her partner, an artist, having left her for another woman some years ago. Karen and the lovely but slightly dim but utterly loyal D.C. Jason ‘The Mint’ Murray are investigating when Karen’s boss, the fearsome Chief Inspector Merkle (or The Dog Biscuit as she is universally known at Gayfield Square station) decides to also hand her this month’s hot potato.
The body of a man has been found in the Firth of Forth and it looks like murder. Not a cold case, Karen protests, but it transpires that although the deceased lived in France and was a French national, he has links to the disappearance of a senior Scotland Office civil servant who vanished ten years ago, so there may be political fall-out from this one. The Dog Biscuit is deeming it a cold case and putting it into Karen’s jurisdiction for that reason.
Karen is still enjoying her relationship with the affluent hipster, Hamish though she still isn’t able to give herself 100% to that relationship. It isn’t helped by the release of her partner Phil’s killer from prison.
As Jason takes point on the Perth case, chasing down leads on two women, Karen recruits the rather splendid DS Daisy Mortimer from Fife Police to go with her to France to find out more about their jazz loving dead French national.
I loved the breadth of knowledge that McDermid displays in this book. It’s fascinating to learn about aspects of forensic pathology and technical wizardry which is so important for solving cases and McDermid uses her extensive contacts and knowledge of in this field to add layers and depth to her investigations.
The cases are interesting and nicely complex. The danger that runs through the book feels real and so there is a nice tension that unsettles the reader as much as it engrosses. The banter is top notch and it feels as if Karen’s team is coming together really well now. I adore the way that Edinburgh comes to life as Karen makes her way from her favourite Syrian café to other equally delicious eating places. McDermid always builds in a smattering of what’s going on in Scotland and the world alongside some pithy commentary and that puts the reader in the same frame as Pirie, adding to the authenticity.
I love that Pirie stands up for her team, but also for herself. She won’t let herself be riled or cowed by Merkle and she is committed to making sure Hamish knows exactly where she stands as far as he is concerned.
I have come to admire Pirie and would want her as a friend. That she feels quite so three dimensional is a testament to McDermid’s characterisation and I’m bit of a fan girl as a result. As the cases reach their conclusion we are on the eve of lockdown. What’s next for Karen Pirie? I can’t wait to find out!
Verdict: In a beautifully plotted and very well told tale, Karen, Daisy and Jason put together the solutions to two murders in journeys which take them from Perth to Stockport and Fife to France and Ireland with a few Brexit barbs built in. A well-paced, flowing narrative entertains and propels and this is a novel I’d unhesitatingly recommend.
Val McDermid is a number one bestseller whose novels have been translated into more than thirty languages, and have sold over sixteen million copies. She has won many awards internationally, including the CWA Gold Dagger for best crime novel of the year and the LA Times Book of the Year Award.
She was inducted into the ITV3 Crime Thriller Awards Hall of Fame in 2009, was the recipient of the CWA Cartier Diamond Dagger in 2010 and received the Lambda Literary Foundation Pioneer Award in 2011. In 2016, Val received the Outstanding Contribution to Crime Fiction Award at the Theakstons Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival and in 2017 received the DIVA Literary Prize for Crime, and was elected a Fellow of both the Royal Society of Literature and the Royal Society of Edinburgh. Val has served as a judge for the Women’s Prize for Fiction and the Man Booker Prize, and was Chair of the Wellcome Book Prize in 2017. She is the recipient of six honorary doctorates and is an Honorary Fellow of St Hilda’s College, Oxford. She writes full-time and divides her time between Edinburgh and East Neuk of Fife.