“Still Life” is book six in Val McDermid’s series featuring Detective Chief Inspector Karen Pirie of Scotland’s Historic Cases Unit. Those who have not read the previous books can jump right in without any problem because all characters are introduced, and previous relationships are easily folded into the current scenario.
The drama opens on a chilly February morning. Billy Watson guides the 23-foot creel boat out into the chilly waters of the Firth of Forth. Unfortunately the first catch of the day is a drowned man. In another scenario, a woman is cleaning out the house of her recently diseased sister when she finds a camper van in the garage that definitely didn’t belong to her sister. Inside the van she discovers skeletonized human remains. These events seem to be discrete and unrelated but the two cases become intricately intertwined. Detective Sergeant Daisy Mortimer of the Fife-based crime squad and Detective Chief Inspector Karen Pirie become entangled in complicated scenarios involving counterfeit identities, forged art, and Paris jazz music.
The plot is focused, intense and imaginative. The investigation proceeds in a careful, systematic way with a slow accumulation of facts, and then unexpectedly takes readers somewhere else. McDermid’s word selection and the cadence of conversations reflect nature of the setting and the complexity of the people. Characters drive the plot, and readers get to know them well. They have depth, purpose, and come complete with nicknames such as “the dog biscuit.” DCI Pirie advances the narrative as she struggles not only with a difficult case, but also with her personal life that is a hot mess. She is developing a serious relationship with a “new” man in her life, but then then the killer of the previous “love of her life” is released from prison.
In echoes of things that actually happen, McDermid gives a nod to Covid with a passing mention of a virus popping up in China and the need to possibly stock up on toilet paper and hand sanitizer. (We know how that went downhill fast!) I received a review copy of “Still Life” from Val McDermid and Atlantic Monthly Press. It is a “page turner” right from the start.