Wednesday, November 1, 2023

Book Review: Past Lying by Val McDermid

 A perfect crime! Every crime novelist claims that it is impossible to perform such an act and writes novels with the sole intention of dispelling such a notion. But it seems one writer has executed such a transgression and planned to base his next novel on that, as per the incomplete manuscript that falls into the hands of DCI Karen Pirie. She is sure that the plot is eerily similar to the unsolved disappearance case of a university student that she handles. Amidst a severe global pandemic, strict lockdown, a hostile boss, and a strained relationship, she digs deeper to find that this crime may not just be born out of the whim of an arrogant writer, and beneath the mystery lies a Scotch Gambit played out to exact revenge.

Past Lying is the upcoming crime novel by the veteran Scottish crime novelist Val McDermid, her seventh one featuring DCI Karen Pirie, a DCI who handles cold cases for the Edinburgh Police. The book is set during the first COVID lockdown period in Edinburgh, with several severe restrictions in place. It is also interesting to note that the writer, being a crime novelist herself, has opted to base the novel in the cutthroat (?) world of crime novelists and publishers. The book is published by Grove Atlantic, who provided me with an advance copy through Netgalley in exchange for feedback.

The idea to use the lockdown period for a crime thriller is a very refreshing twist. What it effectively does is provide a closed-room setting for the plot. A crime is (probably) committed, and all the suspects are severely restricted in their movements with only one option: to let the classic detective interrogate them, piece together the clues, and detect the culprit. But in Past Lying, even the detective, unlike Poirot, who gives batshit about the personal space or privacy of suspects, is severely restricted. Instead of impairing the plot progression, the writer effectively uses this predicament to provide innovative ways for Karen to overcome her obstacles.

The writer also gives her readers an interesting glimpse of the world of crime fiction writers and the industry. She, being a crime writer herself, makes it very entertaining, even though the glit and glamour feel exaggerated to suit the plot necessities. Better than the lives of writers, I feel McDermid depicts the fandom of crime writers, true fiction enthusiasts, and the podcast culture with more accuracy and sensitivity. It is the portions of the novel that detail the literary world and surrounding paraphernalia that make it more enlivened.

One drawback of the closed-room mysteries is that the reader always succumbs to the tendency to be ahead of the narrative and predict the culprit. I guessed this surprise well ahead of the reveal, but still, I found Past Lying a pretty interesting crime novel to read. The motive and modus operandi of the crime are absorbing to read about, and as a procedural, the novel is very diligent in its path. Lockdown and the pervasive, uncertain atmosphere provided a claustrophobic effect while reading.

If I have an issue with this book, which I have with many other recent books of the genre, it is the unnecessary virtue signalling. While writing a series of mystery books featuring a common detective, I assume it is very well to have subplots that don't add to the main plot but forward the story of the protagonist from one novel to the next. But many novels try to forcefully insert subplots that don't complement the story or the overarching character development of the protagonist spanning the franchise. This is done to make an idealistic or political point or to make the novel more culturally inclusive. If this is an important feature to add to a crime novel, why not make it the main plot? What is the reason to introduce plot points and characters that impede a perfectly paced story?


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