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Author: Val McDermid
Publisher: Hachette/Sphere

Edinburgh during lockdown is the setting for this crime thriller by Val McDermid featuring DCI Karen Pirie. Past Lying is the seventh book about Pirie, the fictional head of Edinburgh’s Historical Crimes Unit. As usual in this series, Pirie’s relationship with her colleagues is mercurial and engaging, and for fans of Edinburgh this book is a delight, traversing all its atmospheric nooks and crannies. The colourful Gaelic-sprinkled dialogue is another bonus for the armchair traveller.

The plot has everything you need for a good summer read: revenge, revelations of the seamier side of lovers and family members, and a story interwoven within a story. When lockdown provides an opportunity to spend time investigating unsolved crimes, Pirie comes across an author’s unfinished manuscript that appears to be a blueprint for an actual crime. The plot of that manuscript has unnerving similarities to the unsolved case of an Edinburgh University student who vanished from her home.

Pursuing the truth of the author’s relationships with his family, friends and rival writers, Pirie finds a dark story of jealousy, rivalry, scheming and betrayal emerging.

This book could be said to reflect McDermid’s own milieu: we get a glimpse behind the scenes of the world of the crime fiction writer, including the ongoing battle to outshine all the other players on the stage of that genre. And there’s a real sense of the frustrations of everyday life during lockdown: the sense of confinement, the inability to be at the bedside of very ill relatives as they battle through the last stages of COVID, and the ongoing temptation to find ways to circumvent physical restrictions. Even if you’re a cop.

But the writing about lockdown is perhaps the element that sits least easily in this otherwise seamless work by a highly accomplished and much awarded writer. For example, there are a touch too many references to masks, social distancing, living in a bubble, and the hard lot of health workers during the pandemic.

In the end, however, this isn’t a bad thing. Reading Past Lying offers a comforting sense of Schadenfreude as we contemplate a restriction-free time of leisure in the summer break ahead.