Click here to read reviewer Luan Gaines' take on Still Life.
Though DCI Karen Pirie has been seeing Hamish Mackenzie for six months, she knows that it's definitely not in the cards to take time off from her job running Police Scotland's Historic Cases unit. She is called to Barrack Street, Perth where a camper van has been found in a garage with skeletonized human remains in the back. Irritated at the lack of urgency, Karen calls upon her "bagman" - colleague Detective Constable Jason Murray. The pair set about identifying the remains, which is now just a disarticulated collection of bones.
Karen's doggedness and braininess are just what's needed, especially in a case such as this. The clues point to the mysterious death of 49-year-old Paul Allard, whose body has just been fished out of the Firth of Forth. Detective Sergeant Daisy Mortimer and SCI Charles Todd are first on the scene. There's no crime scene to be preserved, no way out of the lack of evidence surrounding Allard's death, although he did have a French passport issued just over two years ago and a driver's license issued in Paris.
As for Karen, perhaps it's now time to put Phil Parhatka back in his box and concentrate on her work. In an effort to trace the identity of the dead woman, Karen visits Stella Leitch. In a voice that literally trembles with anger, Stella lambasts the police over the skeleton lying in her sister Susan's garage. She thinks it's possible that Susan and her girlfriend, Amanda, got into a fight that ended badly. Karen has a great deal of interest in the case, perhaps because she has seen grief up close and understands Stella's state of mind. Time does not diminish the pain of not having answers.
With Daisy on board, the team discover that Paul Allard was a jazzman who played saxophone in a quintet and lived on the Left Bank before running away to join the French Foreign Legion. Neither Todd nor Karen's team has turned up a single witness who'd seen Paul Allard/James Auld walking out to the headland. Karen is constantly under pressure from her boss, Markie "the Dog Biscuit," who arranged for Daisy from DCI Todd's team to be Karen's bag carrier.
The trail soon turns to James's brother, Ian Auld, once among the ranks of the British civil service. James is discovered to have a connection to a four-year-old story about a fire destroying an art gallery in Brighton. As the dueling investigations play out, the insomnia that has plagued Karen since Phil's death and turned her into a nightwalker has begun to abate. Fresh ideas chase themselves round her head and the spectra of the Dog Biscuit is always hanging over her, demanding a swift and clean resolution to the case - something that seems completely out of reach.
As the dueling narratives unfolded, I found myself getting a little confused. Was James in touch with an art dealer in Ireland? The trail takes Karen and Daisy to an Oxford art society where a photograph of Ian Auld and an artist named David Greig unleashes a puzzle that nags at Karen. There's also Karen's nemesis, Merrick Shand, the animal who used his car to deliberately crush the life of out of her beloved Phil. Shand has been released from prison. In order to make the nights pass (and before the coronavirus appears), Karen walks the streets of Edinburgh into the small hours of the morning, contemplating the nature of both crimes - the nature of James's death and the role his "dead" brother played in it.
Many of the characters in Still Life operate under the idea that their selflessness allows for some sort of moral exemption. McDermid excels in showing this as well as the tension between revelation and justice as Karen makes some startling discoveries about the unregulated art world. The author fashions a finale that tees up the next thriller (and which may end up unfolding under lockdown!).