Roush Review: Meet ‘Karen Pirie,’ Hot on the Trail of a Cold Case

Karen Pirie

Karen Pirie

Matt's Rating: rating: 3.5 stars

When Karen Pirie (Lauren Lyle, Outlander) lies down on the job, this detective isn’t loafing. She’s busy concentrating, trying not to scream in frustration at the chauvinistic bosses who’ve assigned her a perplexing 25-year-old cold case with little confidence she’ll solve it.

They should know better. Mystery fans already do, if they’re familiar with the work of prolific Scottish novelist Val McDermid, whose Tony Hill series inspired six seasons of Wire in the Blood. Let’s hope for similar results for BritBox’s Karen Pirie, featuring a scrappy up-and-comer who erupts in fury whenever it’s suggested she only got this case—the 1996 murder of a barmaid that’s the subject of a nagging podcast—because of her gender. Though she’s the first to admit, in an instantly endearing and self-deprecating aside, that it’s “not the greatest time to be called Karen.”

The prime suspects in the case, then and now, are three former college buds who discovered the body and have been haunted by secrets ever since. They grew up to be a surgeon, a university lecturer, and an artist, and throughout the three 90-minute episodes, the story toggles between flashbacks of their terror during the initial police interrogations and their adult discomfort when the unsolved murder once again becomes fodder for suspicion, putting a potential target on their backs.

Karen’s challenge is to dig into the distant past — the first season is based on McDermid’s book, The Distant Echo — while appeasing her politically minded bosses, including a Detective Inspector who chides her for “marching into people’s lives causing chaos.” She’s also tiptoeing around the bruised ego of her former partner and sometimes lover (Zach Wyatt) who thought he deserved the assignment.

While Karen understandably has a chip on her shoulder, demanding to be taken seriously, she’s nonetheless a chipper presence, not one of those dour and depressive inner-demon sorts that populate so much of British and European crime drama. She can be brash and funny, also stealthy and sly, and her search for answers in this well-plotted whodunit leads to one of the most dramatic (bordering on melodramatic) climaxes I’ve seen since Broadchurch.

Karen Pirie, Series Premiere, Tuesday, October 25, BritBox