Too Interesting to Ignore with Val McDermid

Article | Issue: Oct 2023

Modern-day Queen of Crime VAL MCDERMID didn’t originally see Karen Pirie as a leading lady, yet two decades on the beloved character keeps coming back for more as CRAIG SISTERSON reports.



You could say it’s rather fitting. Despite cold case detective Karen Pirie hitting screens in a hit, eponymous crime drama last spring (Karen Pirie, available on BritBox), legendary crime writer Val McDermid hadn’t intended this year’s novel to feature her tenacious heroine from Fife. Yet Past Lying, in which a manuscript found among the papers of a deceased crime writer reignites a cold case during the early months of lockdown, lands on bookshelves this month.

From the start, Karen Pirie has proven too interesting to ignore.

McDermid, the modern-day Queen of Crime, is currently partway through a new five-book series that explores the political and social landscapes of her 40-year-plus writing life. In the superb 1979 then the terrific 1989, journalist Allie Burns battles misogyny and prejudice while digging into dark deeds occurring alongside major events, issues, and societal changes.

‘I’d had this idea of writing a sequence of novels that kind of covered the time period of my life as a journalist then novelist, partly as a way of getting out of writing the memoir that my publisher and various other people say I should write,’ says McDermid. ‘I’m not interested in that, navel-gazing for a couple of years. I’ve got other stories to tell. And the other thing is if you’re truthful in a memoir you end up hurting people, or waiting for them to die first.’

Instead, during the early days of the pandemic McDermid began using her life experience to begin a new series that’d take decade-long leaps up to 2019, ‘the last year of normal life’.

In 1979, Burns’ life sort of mimicked McDermid’s from that time, in some ways.

‘Like I was then, Allie’s a young journalist on a tabloid newspaper in Glasgow, but she’s not me,’ explains McDermid with a grin while we’re chatting under a large marquee at the Theakston Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival in Harrogate – an iconic festival the Scottish storyteller helped establish 20 years ago. ‘Allie’s got my anecdotage, but she’s not me. Back in ’79, I was young, free, and single and had a pocketful of money for the first time in my adult life, so I was having a lot more fun than Allie Burns gets to have, let me tell you!’

Last year’s 1989 saw Burns in a news leadership role in the north of England, investigating truths powerful people want hidden while dealing with the Lockerbie crash, a rampant AIDS crisis, and the latter days of the Iron Curtain and the Iron Lady (Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher). Two books in, McDermid had crafted another terrific, must-read series.

Next up, 1999, where Burns would stroll into times that overlapped with two of McDermid’s other iconic characters: senior detective Carol Jordan and clinical psychologist Tony Hill.

That is, until Karen Pirie interrupted.

McDermid was in New Zealand last year for a belated second of three stints as a visiting professor at the University of Otago (her first had been in 2019, before Covid Interruptus).

‘I went off to Dunedin last September with the intention of reading around 1999 – a bit of history, a bit of politics, the fiction of the late 1990s, and my own books published around that time: early Tony Hill and Carol Jordan, A Place of Execution,’ she says. Talking to Good Reading ahead of this year’s Bloody Scotland festival in mid-September, Val is in conversation with fellow Scottish crime writer Abir Mukherjee. As well as continuing her reign as the Debbie Harry of crime fiction; the lead singer of the Fun Lovin’ Crime Writers.

‘I knew the only way to get some peace was to write it.’

‘I wanted to get my head into that 1999 year before I settled on a world and subject for Allie Burns to dive into. But I’d barely got my feet under the desk at Otago when I woke up one morning with Karen Pirie in my head. Nothing specific, just her presence nipping at my head. I was having all sorts of conversations with my boss, Liam McIlvanney, about story structure and this plot sprang more or less fully formed into my head and wouldn’t leave me in peace.’

This unbidden Karen Pirie idea, which became Past Lying, was like a complicated gift wrapped in several layers of paper and ribbon, says McDermid.

‘I knew the only way to get some peace was to write it. I finished it in Auckland a few months later, a couple of days before Christmas. But of course, while I was writing that, Allie and 1999 were rumbling away in the back of my head, and she’ll be back next year.’

Karen Pirie’s refusal to stay in the background while McDermid focused on her new Allie Burns series is fitting, as the beloved character now portrayed onscreen by Lauren Lyle (Outlander) has been that way from the very beginning. Karen Pirie wasn’t the star in her first appearance (The Distant Echo in 2003), but ‘a relatively minor character’ in McDermid’s words.

And that book was meant to be a standalone, not a series starter.

Yet years later when McDermid had another ‘great idea for a standalone’ (what would become The Darker Domain), the stars aligned. ‘For my story I needed a cold case detective in Fife, and I thought, “I’ve already got one”, says McDermid with a laugh. ‘So I just recycled Karen Pirie and gave a bit more weight to her character. I found there were things I could do that were really interesting. So that was a no-brainer, really.’

Many years, several novels, and a TV series later, millions of readers (and now viewers) around the world are very glad that Karen Pirie proved far too interesting to ignore.



Val McDermid authorDubbed the Queen of Crime, Val McDermid has sold over 17 million books to date across the globe and is translated into more than 40 languages. She is perhaps best-known for her ‘Wire in the Blood’ series, featuring clinical psychologist Dr Tony Hill and DCI Carol Jordan, which was adapted for television starring Robson Green and Hermione Norris. She has written three other series: private detective Kate Brannigan, journalist Lindsay Gordon and, most recently, cold-case detective Karen Pirie, whose debut appearance in The Distant Echo is soon to become a major ITV series. She has also published in several award-winning standalone novels, books of non-fiction, short story collections and a children’s picture book, My Granny is a Pirate.

Visit Val McDermid’s website

Author: Val McDermid

Category: Crime & mystery

Book Format: Paperback / softback

Publisher: Sphere

ISBN: 9781408729090

RRP: $24.99

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