When the Art of Deceit... is Murder (Still Life crime thriller review)

A waterlogged body, pulled from the ocean by an unsuspecting fisherman. A staid, middle-aged Scottish civil servant, missing for years, finally declared legally dead. The body of an unknown female, now little more than bones, found in a derelict camper van hidden in a recently-deceased woman’s garage. And, a flashy, louche, anti-establishment artist, who committed suicide a decade ago. 

There are a lot of dead people woven throughout Val McDermid’s latest crime thriller, Still Life… but, as always, the much-lauded Scottish mystery maven manages to fashion a terrific tapestry from all the pieces and parts.


Detective Chief Inspector Karen Pirie takes her job as head of a cold cases squad very seriously—even more so, after losing her own life partner a few years earlier, and feeling firsthand how devastating the not knowing can be, until a loved one’s murder is resolved. Still, some cases are gonna be trickier than others, no matter how dedicated the team.

Take this latest one. When an avenue of investigation leads to a case she worked on previously—one which as yet remains unsolved—it feels almost like a personal affront to Karen, a reminder of her own failure… which, to someone as driven as she, is also all the impetus she needs to go full-on gangbusters.

So, armed with her trusty cadre of underlings and colleagues in complementary fields (forensic pathologists, computer techs, and the like)—while feeling intense pressure from a superior who detests her (and everyone else)—Karen sets out to get this one right… or else.

Little does she know that the various investigative avenues will involve travel to a half-dozen other countries, taking her from the upper echelons of government to jazz clubs to a secluded commune, with lessons in art history and fraud, along the way. 

And, since regular life doesn’t stop (for anyone) just because work gets busy, there’s also a personal bump in the road to deal with: the man responsible for her partner’s death is being released from prison… much, much sooner than Karen is prepared to handle. 


I’ve been a fan of McDermid’s for a looooong time, now… meaning there’s a pretty high bar to meet (or top) with each successive story, but—particularly with both her Karen Pirie and Tony Hill series—she always delivers a winner.

From vivid descriptions of place to crystal-clear depictions of her characters (appearances, motivations, foibles, moods, etc.), McDermid is a master at creating a setting and atmosphere that’s practically tangiblewhich never fails to draw me fully into the story, as it does, once more, in Still Life. This is a cracking-good yarn—smart as hell, cultured but edgy, and populated by a group of people who come across as very real. I enjoyed it immensely.

One final note: Still Life is the first book I’ve read which mentions COVID-19 (in a small way, since the majority of the story takes place right on the cusp of the worldwide pandemic, but still), and I’ve gotta say, living through it for the past 7+ months, now? McDermid’s inclusion of something so monumental—this unknowable entity that’s about to take over the fictional world, too—just feels right. 



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