Review: ‘Past Lying’ and the benefits of diving in mid-series

"Past Lying," by Val McDermid. (Atlantic Monthly Press/TNS)
"Past Lying," by Val McDermid. (Atlantic Monthly Press/TNS)

I admit it.

Scottish crime novelist Val McDermid, one of a handful of writers whose work is characterized as Tartan Noir, has penned a bajillion books (more like 47) that comprise about as many series (five maybe?) and I had yet to read any. Not one. Until "Past Lying."

It's the seventh and most recent installment of the Karen Pirie series, which kicked off in 2003 with "The Distant Echo" (a TV version can be streamed on BritBox).

In "Past Lying," Pirie is still with the Historic Cases Unit. She and her crew review cold cases out of Edinburgh, and when a connection is made between a recently deceased crime writer and a young woman who went missing the year before, they find themselves stymied by an unexpected turn of events, one that stalls the whole world: COVID and the pandemic shutdown.

Jumping into a crime series with the most recent volume probably doesn't make the most sense. The downside is missing out on context, and that's true for "Past Lying." Details about the death of a previous partner -- Pirie is in a newer relationship at the outset -- would be enlightening, as would knowing more about what happened to investigator Jason Murray. A fall down a flight of stairs and resulting broken leg are mentioned several times. Reading "Past Lying" often feels like watching a movie based on a book -- details feel sketchy but, in this case, there is nothing to fill in the gaps.

The media res approach is not without precedent for me, and it does have its pluses. I entered the world of Inspector Thomas Lynley by picking up book 13, "With No One as Witness," not realizing it was a series. In it, author Elizabeth George kills off a major character. Had I read the books in order (there are 21, at last count), that death would have shocked me more, I suppose -- it certainly shocked longtime fans. Instead, it made me curious. How did Lynley, et al., get to this point?

And now I'm curious about Detective Chief Inspector Pirie.

"Past Lying" takes time to get going, mostly because the characters aren't allowed to be in the same room together. Much of the early action is through phone calls, virtual meetings, FaceTime. The pace quickens as Pirie and crew adhere to lockdown rules but find ways to do their jobs. The twists and turns are satisfying, especially the meta quality of a crime writer writing about crime writers and the book-within-a-book structure.

If nothing else, "Past Lying" is worth a read for the Scottish slang: "jings," "steamie," "rock up," "shoogly," "blether," "crack on" -- the last of which is exactly what I plan to do as I head back to the beginning of this "braw" series.