At this stage, the announcement of another ITV crime drama has the novelty of a press release revealing that bees love pollen. But the creators of Karen Pirie insist this one is different.
Despite loud rhetoric about equality, it’s still rare for a primetime show to have an all-female creative team. The Distant Echo is an adaptation of Val McDermid’s 2003 novel by actor-screenwriter Emer Kenny (who has also written for Harlots and Save Me Too), with Lauren Lyle (last seen in Vigil) playing her first lead role as DS Karen Pirie, a detective in the St Andrews area of Scotland.
It’s also rare for a show’s creative team to be this young. Lyle has her first lead role at age 29 in a show directed by 32-year-old Kenny as writer and executive producer. Kenny also stars as DS Pirie’s best friend, River.
“I knew full well that I was a young showrunner,” Kenny says. “So I wanted to try and do something new with the mainstream ITV crime brand. My mantra was ‘cool and fresh’ which is what I said so many times when people looked at me.”
“When I got the audition script sent to me,” Lyle says, “I thought: a lead detective role for someone in their twenties! You don’t see that.”
“I don’t think there’s any other police detective on TV this young,” Kenny adds. However, many exist in real life.
“The police advisers said that detective chiefs just wouldn’t do most of the things they do on TV,” Kenny says. “The preliminary talks and so on. They would leave it to someone like Karen.”
McDermid, a bead-like procedural realist, is pleased with such accuracy, but never told Kenny what to do: “I want to write novels, not TV scripts.” The novelist, 67, felt that this TV project should have her even more hands-off than usual, as the point was to feel younger than other police shows.
Neither Lyle nor Kenny came to McDermid’s work with prejudice. “I was sent the book by ITV,” says Kenny, “and my sister is a great crime reader and she said, ‘Ooh, Val, the queen of crime!'”
Lyle laughs. “I told my father I had this part, and he said, ‘Do you know it belongs to the Queen of Crime?’ My mom told me he didn’t sleep that night, he was so excited.”
Their relatives risk a letter from a lawyer; the Agatha Christie estate, which has trademarked the royal metaphor, has objected to its use by McDermid, who is likely to compromise future dust jackets by being dubbed “the Scottish queen of crime.”
Kenny deliberately watched ITV crime dramas, from Prime Suspect to Unforgotten, to “find a character and tone that had never been done there”. Part of this was the decision that Karen would be casual about dressing and hairdressing, a reflection of McDermid’s refusal to glorify female characters.
“Except for covering a few spots,” Lyle says, “I had no makeup on. We wanted her to look alarmingly, confrontationally young. People keep saying, ‘Did they put a kid on this case?’”
In most cases it might seem rude or irrelevant to mention Lyle is 5ft 3in and Kenny 5ft 10in, but the camera angles play with this disparity and another with male colleagues towering over both. When Karen walks into a conference or a door is opened by a man twice his height and wide, her physical frailty creates tension.
“A reporter asked if I was cast because I was small,” says Lyle. “And, uh, no! But visually it is super handy. When these huge men yell at Karen, belittle her in every way, I’ve got something to play with, I always have to look up to them.”
With McDermid’s approval, Kenny made many changes to The Distant Echo, not least because Pirie is a relatively minor character in the story, before coming to prominence for the next books in the series. In the novel, the central cold case – the death of a young woman one night she had contact with several now prominent men – is investigated by a journalist who 19 years later becomes a true crime podcaster who keeps missing crucial clues.
This update reflects McDermid’s long-held annoyance at those who tell her they’ve stopped reading crime novels because real crime is “better.”
“I think it’s completely inauthentic,” she says, “to say that true crime podcasts give you the truth and fiction doesn’t. In novels I’ve written about things I couldn’t do when I was a journalist, for various reasons, mainly the libel laws in this country. There is a real problem with true crime because people often don’t have the investigative tools to do it in a credible way. A lot of it is ‘he said/she said’ and I’m uncomfortable with that because it has a deep impact on people’s lives.”
Kenny admits that she “put that thought in Karen’s mouth. True-crime podcasts are interesting because they often campaign but are also very commercial. I’m terrified of driving at night while listening to something about a serial killer, and I wanted to write about why we do that to ourselves. I think we like the idea of a calm voice telling us we will find the answers. But you get the funny thing that they can’t fix it and the public feels cheated. In any case, you will get a solution with crime novels.”
One thing that hasn’t dated since the book was written is internal and external sexism against successful women. Chosen to run a business despite her youth, Karen believes she’s been spotted quickly in the field of talent, but her male bosses want to look cynical as a feminist.
For McDermid: “That is very typical in the workplace these days. It’s always the same when someone who fits remotely into the minority category gets a promotion. No one in the office or workplace thinks it’s because they are great at their job. It’s always because you’re a woman. It’s because you’re black. It’s because you’re deaf. That is very demoralizing in the long run.”
Kenny says: “When I wrote it, I could see both sides. Karen is good and deserves to be there, but then again she doesn’t want to be a tactical couple. I’ve been put in writer’s rooms full of men and know I’m there as the female perspective. It’s good that I’m there – and I should be there – but if you’re the only one, it can be nauseating.”
Due to the plot of the source novel, the female-led team faced an issue that has become controversial on male-made television: a young woman as a victim of violence.
“I struggle,” Lyle says, “with the idea that we always see women getting killed on screen. But here we look at it through the eyes of a young woman. And also, the problem isn’t going anywhere: there are still killed women and we didn’t solve it, why stop hiding it on screen?”
Kenny’s negotiation on this matter, she says, was that “there are deliberately no gory, needless assault scenes. It’s a book written by a woman, a script written by a woman, and that’s crucial. The victim – Rosie – keeps coming back in flashback: she has a character and a life, she’s not just a body on a record. I don’t think it’s about watching dead women for entertainment. The killing of women is a major problem in society; When I was writing this, the news was all about Sarah Everard. I think it would be perverse to say I’m going to write about dead men instead.”
What makes for great page and screen fiction is crime with complex motivations, no matter how insane. With a cold case, there are lasting psychological consequences for those who have escaped justice.
“To walk around with that on your back all day,” Kenny wonders. “What does that do to you? This show is about choices and trauma and the ripple effect of trauma.”
‘Because,’ says McDermid, ‘it doesn’t just affect the killer, but everyone who is part of their lives: their friends, their partners, their children. I mean, imagine turning 25 and finding out that your father is a murderer. It’s not like it’s something that happens in the present, where you could see for yourself the tensions and tensions that led to something like this. But there is something from the deep past. How do you process that in your knowledge of someone?”