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by Val McDermid
Atlantic Monthly Press, November 2023
464 pages
ISBN: 0802161499

Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

Detective Karen Pirie returns for the 7th time in Val McDermid's latest mystery novel PAST LYING. Pirie's murder investigation takes place in the middle of Covid lockdown and she must navigate the strict Scottish rules while pursuing a fresh lead on a missing person case. People are only allowed out for one hour of exercise and cannot be close to anyone not in their household. Even the police—or "polis" as they are referred to—must follow these rules. Of course Pirie manages to bend them so that she can conduct her investigation, sometimes lying her way out of difficult situations. Still, she is searching for the truth, in the case and also in her personal relationships.

Although her unit is called Historical Cases Unit, the information she works on has to do with a case that is only a year old. A young woman, Lara Hardie, went missing and the case had never been solved. Now a lead comes to Pirie in an odd way. DC Jason Murray, who is not usually very bright about putting things together, tells her that a friend at the National Library has discovered something troubling in the papers given to the library from the estate of a dead mystery novelist. The papers include an unfinished novel about the murder of a young woman, basically killed just to see if a perfect crime could be committed. The young woman in the novel suffers from a rare malady that is a form of epilepsy. The sufferer has momentary episodes of complete collapse, but these episodes only last for seconds and may not affect her very much. The missing woman in real life also suffered from this affliction.

Pirie is intrigued—and also quite bored being in lockdown and not able to work. So she has her team follow up various leads related to the info in the novel. The writer Jake Stein, whose papers contained the book, had died suddenly, but not before his sterling career had been devastated by the revelation of his womanizing and tell-all writing. In the book, the main character is named Jamie Cobain, and he has a worrisome relationship with another writer named Rob Thomas. Jealousy between them is apparent, as well as a reason that Jamie would want revenge on Rob. And in real life, Jake had been friends of a sort with the writer Ross McEwen. The names seem quite close to real life, as does the name of the victim, Laurel Oliver.

Questions arise. Is this just fiction? If it is a draft of a novel, where are the corrections? Where is the ending? Is this even the dead writer's style? Is life imitating art or is the writing describing a crime that already happened?

Pirie's personal life is also full of questions. Has she made a mistake taking up with Hamish, who perhaps does not really see her for who she is but rather for who he wants her to be? Is he being truthful to her? Does he even listen to what she says and wants?

Val McDermid does not disappoint the reader as the answers to these questions play out in the book—and we are all reminded of what an excellent writer she is and how lucky we are that the pandemic lockdowns are over.

§ Anne Corey is a writer, poet, teacher and botanical artist in New York's Hudson Valley.

Reviewed by Anne Corey, December 2023

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)

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