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Still Life: A Karen Pirie Novel

Review

Still Life: A Karen Pirie Novel

Val McDermid is now 34 novels into her stellar career, and she continues to prove that she is incapable of penning a bad book. STILL LIFE is the latest entry in her series starring DCI Karen Pirie of the Historical Cases Unit, and it is a true page-turner.

It also ends up being an ideal read for our current times as McDermid sets the action in February 2020, where little hints are sprinkled in along the way about a potential pandemic in China. With that undercurrent running in the background, it's time to hunker down and prepare for an extremely clever set of mysteries that need solving.

The first catch of the day for a lobsterman manning the Bonnie Pearl on the chilly Scottish waters is a drowned man. The pathologist lets DCI Charlie Todd and DS Daisy Mortimer know that the cause of death may be drowning, but more likely it was the blow that first caved in the back of his head prior to hitting the waters outside Fife. The victim is identified as Paul Allard from Paris, France. Now they must figure out why Paul was in Scotland and who may have wanted to kill him.

"...a true page-turner.... McDermid’s mastery of the written word and precision plotting create one of her best mysteries in recent memory."

At the same time, Karen and her partner, DC Jason Murray, are on their own case. They are called to the home of the late Susan Leitch by her sister, Stella. The RV camper parked in Susan's garage happens to be housing an unexpected occupant --- a skeleton. There is no identification to be found, so full DNA research will be needed to determine who this person was. Of course, there are more questions to be answered, such as why a skeleton was left there and for how long.

Meanwhile, Charlie and Daisy receive some interesting and surprising details on Paul. To begin with, he was a Scotsman whose real name was James Auld. It seems that James had left Scotland some years ago to join the French Foreign Legion. Following that stint, he was part of a popular jazz band that played around Paris. This information allows them to tie James to his semi-famous brother, Iain Auld, a senior civil servant who vanished without a trace back in 2010. What, if any, connection might there be between James’ death and Iain's disappearance? Daisy is lucky that she has been schooled in French studies because she feels that a trip to Paris might be in the foreseeable future.

Karen and Jason are putting together Susan’s background while they await identification on the badly preserved skeleton. One lead would be Susan's prior same-sex lover, a young woman named Dani Gilmartin. They need to speak with the family and friends of all involved to get a better picture, even though they are not 100% sure that their skeleton is actually Susan. It turns out that Jason is going to have to take the lead on this case as the powers that be send Karen and Daisy off to Paris to investigate James.

Their excursion doesn't reveal as much about James as it does about Iain. The happily married man, whose wife still lives in the UK, got himself heavily involved in the world of popular British art. Specifically, he became smitten with the gay bad boy of British art at the time, David Greig, who was known for his bizarre and controversial pieces and paintings. He also had a keen eye that allowed him to reproduce famous works of art. The art world was aware that he took his own life in a cliff dive following the depression of a lover he could not get over. Karen and Daisy begin throwing around all sorts of possibilities. Was Iain and David involved in some highly illegal and very profitable forgery work? Even if this is true, how can they prove it?

The typically intense Karen seems to be taken with Daisy after initially not being happy about the reassignment. She still keeps her hand in both investigations and learns from Jason that the skeleton case has added another name to the mix, Amanda McAndrew, who has been tied romantically to Dani. Karen warns Jason not to do anything foolish. He must not get too close to any potential suspect on his own because one may end up being a killer.

What keeps STILL LIFE moving, though, is the James Auld murder case. Karen and Daisy find themselves going down one road after another as the art world and Iain's disappearance end up being their own Pandora's boxes that keep the mystery confounding and exciting. The book’s title speaks to both a style of painting and the simple fact that any dead body --- whether a drowning victim or a decaying skeleton --- are still lives. McDermid’s mastery of the written word and precision plotting create one of her best mysteries in recent memory.

Even when the cases are wrapped up, we get hit right in the face with a bit of our own reality. Various characters seek out locations and mates to lock down with as the whispered-at pandemic is now at their doorstep, which is by far the novel’s most frightening element.

Reviewed by Ray Palen on October 23, 2020

Still Life: A Karen Pirie Novel
by Val McDermid

  • Publication Date: October 6, 2020
  • Genres: Fiction, Mystery, Suspense, Thriller
  • Hardcover: 436 pages
  • Publisher: Atlantic Monthly Press
  • ISBN-10: 0802157440
  • ISBN-13: 9780802157447