‘My dad didn’t sleep, he was so excited’: the ITV drama that’s rewriting the rules of crime TV

By this stage, the announcement of another ITV crime drama has the novelty of a press release revealing that bees like pollen. But the makers of Karen Pirie insist that 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 adapted from 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) taking 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 so young. Lyle has her first lead role at 29 in a show steered by the 32-year-old Kenny as writer and executive producer. Kenny also co-stars, playing DS Pirie’s best friend, River.

“I was very aware of being a young showrunner,” says Kenny. “So I wanted to try to do something new with the mainstream ITV crime brand. My mantra was ‘cool and fresh’, which I said so often people were eye-rolling at me.”

“When I was sent the audition script,” says Lyle, “I thought: a lead detective role for someone in their 20s! You don’t see that.”

“I don’t think there’s any other police detective this young on TV,” adds Kenny. Many, though, exist in real life.

“The police advisers said that detective chief inspectors simply wouldn’t do most of the stuff they do on TV,” says Kenny. “The preliminary interviews and so on. They’d leave it to someone like Karen.”

McDermid, a beady procedural realist, is happy about such accuracy but never told Kenny what to do: “I want to write novels, not TV scripts.” The novelist, 67, felt she should be even more hands-off than usual on this TV project, because its aim was to feel younger than other police shows.

Neither Lyle nor Kenny came to McDermid’s work with preconceptions. “I was sent the book by ITV,” says Kenny, “and my sister’s a great crime reader and she said, ‘Ooh, Val, the Queen of Crime!’”

Lyle laughs. “I told my dad that I’d got this part, and he said, ‘You do know that’s by the Queen of Crime?’ My mum told me he didn’t sleep that night, he was so excited.”

Their relatives may risk a lawyers’ letter; the Agatha Christie estate, which trademarked the regal metaphor, has objected to its use by McDermid, who is likely to compromise on future dust jackets by being called “the Scottish Queen of Crime”.

Kenny deliberately watched ITV crime dramas, from Prime Suspect to Unforgotten, to find “a character and tone that hadn’t been done there”. Part of this was the decision that Karen would be casual about dressing and hairdressing, mirroring McDermid’s refusal to glamorise female characters.

People keep saying, ‘Have they put a kid on this case?’

Lauren Lyle

“Except for covering up a few spots,” says Lyle, “I didn’t wear makeup. We wanted her to look alarmingly, confrontingly young. People keep saying, ‘Have they put a kid on this case?’”

In most cases, it might seem rude or irrelevant to mention that Lyle is 5ft 3in and Kenny 5ft 10in, but the camera angles play with this disparity and a further one with male colleagues towering over both. As Karen walks into a conference or has a door opened by a man twice as high and wide, her physical vulnerability adds tension.

“A journalist asked if I’d been cast because I was short,” says Lyle. “And, er, no! But, visually, it’s super-useful. When these huge men are shouting at Karen, in every sense belittling her, it does give me something to play with, always having to look up at them.”

With McDermid’s agreement, Kenny made many changes to The Distant Echo, not least because Pirie is a relatively minor character in the story, before being foregrounded for the next books in the series. In the novel, the central cold case – the death of a young woman on a night when she had contact with several now-prominent men – is being investigated by a journalist who, 19 years on, becomes a true-crime podcaster who keeps missing crucial clues.

This update echoes McDermid’s long-held irritation at those who tell her they have stopped reading crime novels because true crime is “better”.

Val McDermid, author of the original Pirie novel.
Val McDermid, author of the original Pirie novel. Photograph: Murdo Macleod/The Guardian

“I think it’s entirely spurious,” 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 when I was a journalist, for various reasons, principally the libel laws in this country. There’s a real problem with true crime, because people often don’t have the investigative tools to do it in a way that feels credible. A lot of it is ‘he said/she said’ and I’m uneasy about that because it has a deep impact on people’s lives.”

Kenny acknowledges she has “put that thought into Karen’s mouth. True-crime podcasts are interesting because they are often campaigning but also very commercial. I terrify myself driving at night listening to something about a serial killer, and I wanted to write about why we put ourselves through that. I think we like the idea of a calm voice telling us we’ll find the answers. But you get the funny thing where they can’t resolve it and the audience feels cheated. At least with crime fiction you do get a solution.”

One thing that hasn’t dated since the book was written is internal and external sexism against successful women. Chosen to run a case despite her youth, Karen believes she has been fast-tracked on talent, but her male bosses cynically wish to look feminist.

For McDermid, “That’s a very typical thing in the workplace now. It’s always the same if somebody who remotely fits the category of minority gets a promotion. Nobody in the office or the workplace thinks it’s because they’re terrific at the job. It’s always because you’re a woman. It’s because you’re black. It’s because you’re deaf. That’s very demoralising over time.”

Kenny says: “Writing it, I could see both sides. Karen is good and deserves to be there but, on the other hand, she doesn’t want to be a tactical pair of tits. I’ve been put in writers’ 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 feel queasy.”

Due to the plot of the source novel, the female-led team faced an issue that has become controversial in male-made television: a young woman as a victim of violence.

“I struggle myself,” says Lyle, “with the idea we’re always seeing women murdered on screen. But, in this, we are looking at it through the eyes of a young woman. And, also, the issue isn’t going anywhere: women are still being murdered and we haven’t resolved it. Why should we stop covering it on screen?”

Kenny’s negotiation of this issue, she says, was that “deliberately, there’s no gore, no gratuitous assault scenes. It’s a book written by a woman, a script written by a woman, and that’s crucial. The victim – Rosie – comes back in flashback throughout: she’s got a character and a life, she’s not just a body on a slab. I don’t think it’s about watching dead women for entertainment. The killing of women is a huge issue 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, however deranged. With a cold case, there are enduring psychological repercussions for those who have escaped justice.

“To be walking around all day with that on your back,” wonders Kenny. “What does that do to you? This show is about choices and trauma and the ripple effect of trauma.”

“Because,” says McDermid, “it impacts not just on the killer, but everybody who’s been part of their life: their friends, their partners, their children. I mean, imagine getting to the age of 25 and finding out that your dad’s a killer. It’s not as if it’s something that’s happening in the present, where you could see for yourself the stresses and strains that might have led to such a thing. But there’s something from the deep past. How do you factor that in to your knowledge of someone?”

• Karen Pirie is on ITV on Sunday 25 September at 8pm.