Karen Pirie, review: meet the most refreshingly normal detective on television

Lauren Lyle as DC Karen Pirie - ITV
Lauren Lyle as DC Karen Pirie - ITV

The writer of Karen Pirie (ITV, 8pm) is one step ahead of us. She, 32-year-old Emer Kenny, has adapted Val McDermid’s bestselling crime novel, The Distant Echo, for modern times. Kenny has brought it bang up to date with the creation of a new character: a true crime podcaster who pushes police into reopening a 25-year-old case by accusing them of “victim-blaming” because the murdered girl was out alone in the early hours (in the book, the cold case review is simply prompted by advances in forensic science).

This development may have you reaching for the "off" button, but don’t be hasty. Kenny knows that it will induce groans, and quickly brings in a male detective who says what many viewers will be thinking. “This is what passes for journalism now, is it? A sultry voice and a bit of a jingle? We’ll be going through the motions because some woke millennial’s found a microphone?” Yes, that detective is supposed to be a bit of a dinosaur (played by a miscast Steve John Shepherd), but he has a point because the podcaster (Rakhee Thakrar) is also an awful, sanctimonious type treating a young woman’s death as entertainment by instalments. You could say Kenny is having her cake and eating it here, what with the murder being the subject of this primetime ITV drama show.

So it’s quite smart, but the best thing might be to just ignore all of that stuff anyway and concentrate on McDermid’s tightly plotted story. It is 1996 in St Andrews, and a barmaid is found dead in the cathedral grounds. Three students were arrested but released without charge – 25 years later, suspicion falls back onto them. They are now a doctor, an artist and a university lecturer, and they are definitely hiding something.

The detective charged with investigating this is DS Karen Pirie, portrayed in an appealing natural performance by Lauren Lyle. It’s quite refreshing to have a lead character in a police drama who is quite junior and doesn’t just stride around being either loud and bolshy or icily efficient in a Jigsaw trouser suit. Pirie, unbeknown to her, has only been put on the case because her male superiors think it will look better to have a woman involved, which makes the conversation she has with a millennial friend quite funny. Pirie: “I have no idea why they gave it to me.” Friend: “Because you’re brilliant!”

The story unfolds in three feature-length episodes. I’m looking forward to the next ones, because I want to find out who the killer is – never mind the issues, isn’t that all we really want from a murder mystery?