Good news for the tourist industry in St Andrew’s, the photogenic Scottish university town previously made famous by a prince and an amateur catwalk model named Kate Middleton. Now it’s got its very own eponymous TV detective series – Karen Pirie. Just like in Bath, Oxford, Bristol, Jersey, Shetland and countless other real and semi-fictional picturesque locations with infeasibly high rates of homicide, soon visitors from all over the world will be able to come and see where celebrated decapitations, drownings and poisonings didn’t actually take place.
The first killing in this new venture splats onto our screens with the disembowelling of a barmaid, her body dumped in the grounds of the cathedral – about as shocking a femicide conceivable. Yet, by contrast, and unusually for a regional detective series, there is nothing unusual or idiosyncratic about its hero. The prosaically named Karen Pirie (Lauren Lyle) is a young detective sergeant who finds herself unexpectedly in charge of a cold case investigation of this gruesome murder of a 19-year-old woman, committed a quarter of a century ago. The revised police interest in the case is prompted by an investigative journalist, played by Rakhee Thakrar, who suggests that the police were negligent in their original casework, due to pernicious sexism and corruption. Can Pirie solve the case before the pesky podcaster?
Based on the novels of Val McDermid and adapted by Emer Kenny, the fictional cold case has a powerful echo now, after the killing of Sarah Everard, the John Worboys attacks and many other instances of crimes against women and girls. DS Pirie is chosen because she is a woman, and her cynical bosses think her gender will help with “the optics”. It’s not great when Pirie finds this out, but it makes her, and the viewers, determined for justice to be delivered.
The murder of the bar worker Rosie Duff (Anna Russell-Martin) in 1996 was particularly macabre. From glimpses in the flashback sequences, it looks like something went very badly wrong after a wild party and a late-night joyride, with Rosie standing up in the back of a convertible car. The initial inquiry was marked by complacency and a police appeal to women at the time not to go out at night, and always tell a friend where they’ll be – “victim blaming”. And that seems to have been about that.
So DS Pirie gets on with it. Her team consists of one rather goofy detective constable, Jason “Minty” Murray (Chris Jenks), and the pair set about methodically working through all the remaining leads. Fortunately, there are many of them, including a trio of now successful former students who were at the centre of the case then, and arrested and questioned, but who somehow got off. The three make for a shifty bunch, then as now, and there’s plenty to link them to the party that Rosie attended. There are also some questions to be asked of the family of the murdered woman, who are, to put it mildly, a wee bit strange.
This Tartan Noir drama lifts itself above the usual run of these cold case thrillers because the story is told in a refreshingly cohesive way – there are relatively few annoyingly random flashbacks and bewilderingly disjointed series. There’s a discipline about the scripting that is curiously absent from too many others of the kind. The writers have understood that they really don’t have to make things too confusing for the jaded viewer slumped in front of a screen. A detective drama should be no more frustrating to watch than a medium-level Sudoku, in my opinion, with a half-dozen suspects as a maximum and no more, no dysfunctional family more than five-strong, and a standard two gratuitous dialogue scenes that confirm what’s going on and why. Karen Pirie hits each benchmark with the resounding thud of an assassinated key witness meeting the hard concrete of an empty car park. It helps us to be bothered enough to make time (90 minutes a go) to watch the next episodes.
There are also some standout performances from a talented, and very large, cast. Lyle, in one scene metaphorically squashed in a lift with grey-suited blokes about twice her size, is excellent as the undervalued, underestimated officer who succeeds where the men have failed. Hers is a deeply sympathetic character, in sharp contrast to Daniel Portman, who, as the brother of Rosie, is custodian of a deep family secret: a more menacing drunk it is hard to imagine outside the bars of Westminster. But not so menacing that he’s going to stop DS Karen Pirie, who, I can confirm, will also likely do fine work on solving ITV’s Sunday evening ratings conundrum.