Good news for the tourism industry in St Andrew’s, the photogenic Scottish university town previously made famous by a prince and amateur catwalk model named Kate Middleton. Now it has its very own crime TV series of the same name – Karen Pirie. Just like Bath, Oxford, Bristol, Jersey, Shetland and countless other real and semi-fictional scenic locations with unimaginably high murder rates, visitors from all over the world will soon be able to come and see where beheading, drowning and poisoning were celebrated when didn’t actually take place.
The first murder in this new venture ripples on our screens with the disembowelment of a barmaid whose body is dumped in the cathedral grounds – about as shockingly as a murder of a woman you can imagine. But in contrast, and unusually for a regional crime series, there is nothing unusual or idiosyncratic about its hero. The prosaically named Karen Pirie (Lauren Lyle) is a young detective-sergeant unexpectedly tasked with investigating a gruesome murder of a 19-year-old woman that took place 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 lax in their original casework due to harmful sexism and corruption. Can Pirie solve the case before the pesky podcaster?
Based on the novels by Val McDermid and adapted by Emer Kenny, the fictional Cold Case has strong repercussions now, following the assassination of Sarah Everard, the attacks of John Worboys, and many other crimes against women and girls. DS Pirie is chosen because she is a woman and her cynical bosses believe her gender will help with the ‘optics’. It’s not great when Pirie finds out, but it makes her and viewers determined to seek justice.
Particularly macabre was the 1996 murder of bar worker Rosie Duff (Anna Russell-Martin). From glimpses in the flashback sequences, it seems like after a wild party and a late-night jaunt, something went very wrong when Rosie stood in the back seat of a convertible. The initial investigation was marked by complacency and a police appeal to women of the time not to go out at night and always tell a friend where they will be – “victim blaming”. And that seems to be the reason.
So DS Pirie continues. Her team consists of a rather goofy detective constable, Jason “Minty” Murray (Chris Jenks), and the two set out to methodically work through any remaining leads. Luckily, there are plenty of them, including a trio of now-successful alumni who were at the center of the case at the time, were arrested and interrogated, but somehow got away. The three of them made a seedy bunch then as now, and there’s a lot that connects them to the party Rosie was at. There are also some questions for the murdered woman’s family, which is a bit odd, to say the least.
This tartan noir drama rises above the usual run of these cold-case thrillers because the story is told in a refreshingly cohesive manner – there are relatively few annoyingly random flashbacks and bewilderingly disjointed series. There’s a discipline to scripting that’s oddly lacking in too many others of its kind. The writers understood that they really don’t need to make things too confusing for the jaded viewer slumped in front of a screen. A detective drama shouldn’t be more frustrating to watch than a medium sudoku, in my opinion, with a maximum of half a dozen suspects and no more, no dysfunctional family of more than five people, and by default two unnecessary dialogue scenes confirming what’s going on and why. Karen Pirie hits every benchmark with the booming bang of a murdered key witness hitting the hard concrete of an empty parking lot. It helps us worry enough to take our time (90 minutes at a time) to watch the next few episodes.
There are also some outstanding performances from a talented and very large cast. Lyle, who in one scene is metaphorically being crushed in an elevator with gray-clad guys about twice her size, excels as an underrated, underrated officer who succeeds where the men have failed. Her character is deeply likable, unlike Daniel Portman who, as Rosie’s brother, harbors a deep family secret: a more menacing drunk than one would imagine outside of Westminster’s bars. But not so threatening that he will stop DS Karen Pirie, who I can confirm is also likely to do a good job of solving the ITV conundrum of Sunday night’s ratings.
https://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/tv/reviews/karen-pirie-review-lauren-lyle-b2174052.html Karen Pirie Review: Lauren Lyle excels in this refreshingly cohesive cold-case drama