'Outlander' star Lauren Lyle on playing TV's next great detective, 'Karen Pirie'

You may not know it yet, but your next TV obsession just started streaming on this side of the pond. Hit Scottish crime drama "Karen Pirie," which premiered in the U.K. in September, arrived stateside in late October via BritBox, and while the title of the show may not be familiar to U.S. audiences, fans of the Starz sensation "Outlander" will recognize its leading lady in a heartbeat.

Lauren Lyle may be best known to U.S. audiences as Marsali Fraser, a determined young woman whose tenacity (and nerves of steel) carry her across the Atlantic as she defies her family and follows the man she loves from Scotland to the American colonies. (She’s also a butcher.) Lyle is a standout even in the crowded "Outlander" cast — but if there’s any justice in this world, she’ll soon be a favorite of anyone with a taste for smart, chilly crime dramas. Or British TV. Or great acting, sharp writing and far more punchlines than one might expect. In short, "Karen Pirie" is excellent, and Lyle is the biggest reason why. 

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The show is so good, in fact, that we’d normally be tempted to tell you to run off and watch it immediately. But in this case, we’ll suggest you read on for some of Lyle’s insights on one of the year’s best —and most unexpected — TV dramas.

Adapted from Scottish crime novelist Val McDermid’s "The Distant Echo," "Karen Pirie" sees Lyle step into the Doc Martens and bumbag (a.k.a. fanny pack) of the titular detective. As the story begins, DS Pirie is unexpectedly put in charge of a long-dormant cold case after a "woke millennial [with] a microphone" starts a podcast about the unsolved murder of Rosie Duff (Anna Russell-Martin), a bartender whose body was found in a cemetery some 20 years prior. But the unexpected nature of the assignment doesn’t mean Karen’s in over her head.


 Lauren Lyle (DS Karen Pirie) – Courtesy of BritBox

"She’s there to do the work," Lyle tells FOX Television Stations of the character. "She wants to get it done and she knows what she needs to do, and she's not happy to — she doesn't need to play by the rules, and do exactly what is expected of her, and stay quiet and adhere to the level of hierarchy.

"She knows that she needs to get it done. I really loved that nature of it."

FOX Television Stations spoke with Lyle about finding the humor in such a grim story, acting with her showrunner Emer Kenny (who plays Karen’s BFF), that bumbag and why she had to build her own crime board before she even started filming.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. You can watch the full interview above.

What drew you to the role of Karen Pirie? Is there one element that especially made you excited about this part?

LAUREN LYLE: When I got the audition, I remember thinking, "Oh my God, a detective who's in her twenties, who is a woman. That doesn't come around." And I thought, "Okay, cool." And then I started reading it and the levity and how funny and sarcastic she is as a character really drew me in, because I think that is how so many of us navigate the world. 

And as a story, you see it through [...] this lens of a young woman who is trying to solve the murder of another young woman, and who knows what it means to walk home at night and have your keys between your fingers. She's also a young woman that knows what it can mean to be afraid to walk home at night. But on top of that, she genuinely and honestly looks at the world and highlights all the ridiculous nature of — maybe the quite controversial nature of the police, nowadays.


Lauren Lyle (DS Karen Pirie) – Courtesy of BritBox

We don't shy away from her looking at them like they're complete idiots half the time, these men that stand up as she walks into the room. And she just finds it all a bit stupid and funny, and actually if they could all just get out of her way, then she'd do a lot better... So I really loved that we didn't shy away from that. I loved her sarcasm. I loved how deadpan she was and direct and honest, and [that she] really isn't afraid to just speak exactly what she means, rather than [there] being any niceties around anything.

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There's a scene in the first episode where Karen has to go in and talk to some bigwigs and all the things that you're describing come through. There's this look on her face, "Well, that was a complete waste of my time."

LYLE: Yeah. [Laughs]

Are there other moments like that where you thought, "I really understand this person on a fundamental level"?

LYLE: Yeah, there's lots of moments even with "The Mint" [a.k.a. DC Jason Murray, a cop with an unusual nickname assigned to work with Karen]. In episode one, they're speaking about the podcast and she's sort of saying, "Have you had a listen to the podcast?" And he's like, "Yeah, yeah, it's quite feminist, isn't it?" And she sort of is quite open [in her response], "Oh, you don't like that?" And he's like, "Oh, no, no, fight the fight." And [she thinks], "What a ridiculous man, this man is. What on Earth is he wearing?" He's in a Ted Baker paisley suit to come to work every day, and she's put on her bumbag and her sweater vest and popped her collar. That's more comfortable [for her], and that's her armor and what she wears. And he's in a full three-piece suit.

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Lauren Lyle (DS Karen Pirie) and Chris Jenks (DC Jason Murray)– Courtesy of BritBox

And I think she just finds it all utterly stupid. She's there to do the work and she wants to get it done and she knows what she needs to do and she's not happy to — she doesn't need to play by the rules and do exactly what is expected of her and stay quiet and adhere to the levels of hierarchy.

She knows that she needs to get it done. I really loved that nature of it. And me and Chris Jenks, who plays the Mint, we could not hold it together a lot of the time because I think they're just like aliens to each other. He looks at her, like, "What on Earth is she wearing? Why has she got a bumbag?" And she looks at him, like, "What's he wearing? Why has he got a tie up to his eyeballs?" So I loved that. I loved it.

What is acting with the show's writer and executive producer like? Do you find yourself really focused on making sure you've got every single word in the correct order? Is it more collaborative than that? 

LYLE: Yeah, it was both. There'd be plenty of times when I would be going to Emer [Kenny] saying, "Do I have to say it like that, 'the interior carpeting of a carpet in a car'?" And she was going, "Yes, you have to say it like that because that's exactly what happens. That, scientifically, is what would be said." She's like, "I've done 12 drafts, Lauren, and you need to say it like that." 

Then also, you know, it was Emer's first time executive producing a show and writing it completely herself. And it was my first time heading a show. So the two of us really bonded very quickly. She's a wee bit older, but we're not dissimilar in age. And so we really bonded around speaking the same language and understanding one another. 

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And I mean, we had funny things: So her name's Emer, my name's Lauren. And on the first day we said, "Right, we're going to go down to set." I wasn't filming yet and I was going, "I'm going to go down to set. This is my show. I'm going to assert myself and we're both going to assert ourselves and this is 'women in film' and we're going to do that." And we had this real hype-up of supporting one another. And we went down and the runner opened the door of the car and she went, "Laura and Emma?" And we both went, "Yes, yes. That is us."

And we went out and then both of us were like, "What are you doing? We need to assert ourselves. This is our show!" So the whole time working with her was an absolute pleasure. We eventually did tell them what our real names were and that you can't call us Laura and Emma. 

And working with her as an actor was brilliant. She's a brilliant actor as well. She's been as much of an actor as she has a writer. So there was loads of collaboration. And if there was ever a time when Gareth [Bryn], our director, didn't know how to give me a note [...], he would [turn] to Emer and say, "You say it to her, you speak the same language." And so she'd come and speak to me. So it was fab.

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Emer Kenny (River Wilde) – Courtesy of BritBox

Do you find yourself getting ahead of Karen? Because when you're reading a mystery or watching a mystery, you almost always have so much more information than the detective. Is Lauren figuring things out more quickly than Karen is?

LYLE: Yes. So this was the hardest thing. The hardest thing is knowing who's done it and having to pretend that you don't. And so, as Lauren, [I had] to understand the whole case. Walking onto set every day and walking into a room every day, I had to understand who [Karen] didn't really trust, who was dead, who's not dead, who have I already interrogated, who's she actually meant to trust and doesn't believe has done it. 

We wouldn't always shoot in order. So I had to have the whole case on my wall, and I had all the suspects and all the different characters who she comes into contact with on my wall because it could get really confusing, especially before shooting. 

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So I was always, before going on set, referencing [the wall, thinking], "Right, who does she actually trust? Have they figured anything out yet? What have they figured out about this person?" Because I really felt confident that she had to be quite cool and collected and good when she's in an interrogation, that she does this all the time, and she's very confident and doesn't give much away. I quite like the idea of her sort of thinking, thinking, thinking, and it all being interior. And then, later on, maybe behind the scenes, once the interrogation is over [...] the personal side of her starts to come out.

Do you have any idea whether or not there's going to be an additional series? There are additional "Karen Pirie" books...

LYLE: I am not allowed to say anything! But there are additional books. There are many more books and that's all I can say. [Laughs]

Three 90-minute episodes. Featuring: Lauren Lyle, Chris Jenks, Emer Kenny, Zach Wyatt, Rakhee Thakrar, Alec Newman, Michael Shaeffer, Ariyon Bakare, Anna Russell-Martin, Jhon Lumsden, Buom Tihngang, Jack Hesketh, Daniel Portman, Josh Whitelaw, Gemma McElhinney. The complete first season of "Karen Pirie" is now streaming on BritBox.

Continue the detective binge with "The Fall," streaming free on Tubi

The Fall (2013-2016): Gillian Anderson and Jamie Dornan lead this detective series about a brutal serial killer operating in Belfast, Ireland. She’s Superintendent Stella Gibson and he’s Paul Spector, a seemingly respectable family man with a murderous secret. The point here isn’t to figure out who did the crime, but why Paul feels an impulse to torture and kill. With its psychological angle and exploration of doubling and mirror images, "The Fall" is a brooding, slow-burn series perfect for a binge watch. Rated TV-MA. Three seasons, 17 episodes. Also featuring Aisling Franciosi, John Lynch, Niamh McGrady.

"The Fall" is streaming free on Tubiget the app

How to watch "Karen Pirie"

"Karen Pirie" is currently streaming on BritBox. After a seven-day free trial, the service costs $7.99/month or $79.99/year.

Caroline Siede contributed to this report.

About the writer: Allison Shoemaker is a Chicago-based pop-culture critic and journalist. She is the author of "How TV Can Make You Smarter," and a member of the Television Critics Association and the Chicago Film Critics Association. She is also a producer and co-host for the Podlander Presents network of podcasts. Find her on Twitter and Instagram at @allisonshoe. Allison is a Tomatometer-approved Top Critic on Rotten Tomatoes.

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