The body of a young woman murdered on a night out, a pair of mismatched detectives sent to investigate… so far so clichéd, you might think, when new crime drama Karen Pirie gets underway this week. But the ITV show, based on a series of novels written by ‘Tartan Noir’ crime author Val McDermid, takes an old, rather hackneyed idea and makes it totally fresh.
It’s a very modern crime drama complete with podcasts, social media, positive discrimination and snowflake millennials. It also questions whether murder should ever be turned into entertainment, and casts a critical eye over a society where violence against women is endemic.
‘Sarah Everard went missing as I was writing it and that was followed by several other cases of missing and murdered women,’ says Emer Kenny, who adapted the books for the screen. ‘I felt so angry, as I know many women did.
‘It couldn’t not make a difference to what I was writing about women not making it home. Because we also feature a podcast in the story, it made me think about them too and how we portray crime on screen.
The ITV show Karen Pirie, based on a series of novels written by ‘Tartan Noir’ crime author Val McDermid, takes an old, rather hackneyed idea and makes it totally fresh
The show introduces a compelling new heroine – eccentric detective Karen who’s played by Outlander’s Lauren Lyle. Pictured: Lauren Lyle as DS Karen Pirie and Zach Wyatt as DS Phil Parhatka
‘I like writing fiction because I change my opinions all the time, which is one reason I put different opinions into the mouths of my characters. I don’t know how I feel about certain things like true-crime podcasts, but I think if you dig into it in a sensitive way you can at least explore some of the important issues.’
The show introduces a compelling new heroine – eccentric detective Karen who’s played by Outlander’s Lauren Lyle – and has a wry humour that feels very authentic. Val McDermid, best known for her Tony Hill novels, adapted for TV as Wire In The Blood with Robson Green, began writing the Pirie books in 2004, but the series of three two-hour episodes updates the story to the present, with flashbacks to a cold case.
In 1996, teenage barmaid Rosie Duff (Anna Russell Martin) vanishes on her way to meet friends at a party in the university town of St Andrews. Suspicion falls on the three drunk young students who find her dead body, but a lack of forensic evidence means no charges are brought and the case is left to gather dust.
Cut to the modern day, and a true-crime podcast begins to dig into the story while criticising police for not taking violence against women seriously. The local force is embarrassed into reopening the case, and decide to promote fearless and slightly annoying Karen to head up the inquiry.
Putting a woman in charge, they reason, will look good with the press who’ve started to sniff around the original botched investigation.
The irony is that even though Karen is against the idea of the podcast because it sensationalises the murder, she realises it’s the very reason she got the job. Determined to prove her worth and find out what happened that night 25 years earlier, she uncovers flaws in the initial investigation and soon finds herself in conflict with the officers who led it.
By the end of the first episode a second body has turned up, while Karen’s on-off lover DS Phil Parhatka (Zach Wyatt), who’d been hoping he’d be asked to lead the case himself, is furious at her promotion.
By the end of the first episode a second body has turned up, while Karen’s on-off lover DS Phil Parhatka (Zach Wyatt), who’d been hoping he’d be asked to lead the case himself, is furious at her promotion
The idea of positive discrimination was also personal for Emer, who’s written for EastEnders but is better known as an actress after roles in Father Brown and Angus Deayton’s comedy Pramface. ‘I’m sure a lot of women and young people will relate to being underestimated by men or older people around them.
‘You know you can do it, but they don’t believe you can,’ she says. ‘I’ve had my own experience of positive discrimination where I’ve been hired for a writing team because I’m a woman and they realise they need a female voice.
‘But at the same time I think, “I’m glad I’m here because they really do need a female voice, but do I only deserve to be here because I’m a woman?”’
Emer, 32, also appears as Karen’s friend River Wilde, and she and Lauren, 29, bonded over the fact they were both young women in a man’s world.
‘A British detective is an iconic thing to play and I never thought I’d get to do that in my 20s,’ says Lauren. ‘But when I read the scripts they were so brilliant I thought, “I could actually do this.”
Much of the show’s humour comes from Karen’s relationship with her sidekick DC Jason ‘Mint’ Murray (Chris Jenks), an archetypal snowflake (pictured together)
Karen is a really underestimated, determined woman who has something thrust upon her with very little back-up. But she knows deep down she can get it done.
‘When I was doing my first scene for the show, where Karen is listening to the podcast in the opening episode, I remember feeling the same kind of impostor syndrome as Karen,’ she recalls. ‘I was so nervous. I was daunted by all the dialogue and technical terms, but at the same time I felt like I was right for the job.’
Much of the show’s humour comes from Karen’s relationship with her sidekick DC Jason ‘Mint’ Murray (Chris Jenks), an archetypal snowflake.
‘When we got our police badges we spent about an hour together practising how to flick them open just so we could look cool,’ laughs Lauren. ‘It’s the kind of thing you could imagine our characters doing.
‘The writing is so funny, but it’s been cleverly merged into a story that’s serious and relevant too. That’s why it feels fresh, it isn’t something we’ve seen before.’
Karen Pirie, Sunday, 8pm, ITV