Before the streaming warriors dug the world for content, British television entered American living rooms almost entirely through PBS and its affiliates. Masterpiece Theater was the home of the network for literary adaptations and stylish historical drama, and Mystery! was the place for the… mysteries.
These venues are now sharing prime time as Masterpiece and Masterpiece Mystery! whose latest presentation, premiering Sunday, is Magpie Murders, adapted by Anthony Horowitz (Foyle’s War, Midsomer Murders). his own 2016 novel. It is a tightly planned, beautifully presented, cleverly acted, thoroughly entertaining and structurally unusual play – a mystery centered around a mystery novel, two stories set in parallel in alternating and rhyming scenes , which over the course of six episodes gives you practically everything you come to British Mysteries for.
An English Village (twice). A mansion (times two). A victim many people would like to see dead (times two). In the framing narrative, an amateur detective drawn into the mystery by circumstances; in the story within the story, a professional detective, a foreign gentleman, not exactly in the shape of Hercule Poirot, but something like that (minus the tics). The local police (antagonistic in the “real world”, comical and cooperative in the “fictional”). A pleasant young pal. A new will. A puzzle that is not recognized as a puzzle. A cold case heating up. And the old question: did he/she fall or was he/she pushed?
Lesley Manville plays Susan Ryeland, an editor at a small publishing house whose cash cow is Alan Conway (Conleth Hill), a worldwide best-selling detective novelist set in the 1950s and starring a courtly private investigator and German refugee named Atticus Pünd (Tim McMullan) occurs). Conway’s eight books and the ninth he has just delivered – also dubbed “Magpie Murders” – advance an imminent sale of the company by publisher Charles Clover (Michael Maloney) to a larger corporation; the publication of the new book, we are repeatedly told, is all that saves the company from possible ruin. (Although Horowitz obviously knows more about publishing than I do, having written many, many books for children, young adults, and adult adults, including two Sherlock Holmes and three James Bond novels, the idea that a company with a live or die in one volume sounded wrong to me. That’s my only objection, Your Honor.)
Susan, who has just returned from the Frankfurt Book Fair, makes herself comfortable to read the manuscript. She proceeds slowly enough to let the book’s scenes unfold at her leisure, and discovers that the last chapter is missing from her copy and all the other copies. It’s trouble turned crisis when Conway – a prickly fellow with a habit of unflatteringly turning people in his life into characters in his books – is found dead at the base of a tower attached to his grand country home is grown. (“A mystery with no answer,” Clover wails. “It’s not even worth the paper it’s not printed on.”)
First thought to be an accident, suicide is suspected when a note is made – but of course it’s murder or we wouldn’t be here. There is also a fatal fall in Conway’s book, that of a housekeeper whose employer, Sir Magnus Pye (Lorcan Cranitch), is about to be found dead himself, beheaded in his sitting room, great hall or whatever it is.
As a professional editor, Susan is alert to discrepancies and senses that something isn’t quite right. Though she claims she’s not good at solving puzzles — “These things are always too complicated for me,” she tells her boyfriend Andreas Patakis (Alexandros Logothetis), a disaffected classical scholar who has a connection to the victim — she will herself detective, down to the crime scene, initially just looking for the missing chapter, then attempting to discover the true circumstances of Conway’s death. She is assisted in this by Pünd himself, who, in a bit of magical realism – not played as a hallucination – emerges from the fictional world to help her focus.
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Directed by Peter Cattaneo (“The Full Monty”), “Magpie Murders” works well on screen, the visual difference between the 1955 and 2022 takes helps keep things clear and allows for clever cuts between the two eras . (Some actors play roles in both stories.) It’s not easy to keep a mystery going for six hours, but this is two mysteries side by side, and there are enough interesting subplots and well-drawn characters (including Claire Rushbrook as Susan’s sister and Matthew Beard as Pünd’s assistant and Conway’s former boyfriend) to keep things lively. Above all, it plays like a delightful game where – like any crime thriller worthy of the name – the clues are in plain sight. The conventions of the genre are only lovingly invoked. Alan Conway may express his disdain for the genre that made him rich, but Horowitz wrote him a love letter.
In fact, the Atticus Pünd half of the story is so well executed that I’m longing for a series built around the character – according to the story, there are eight previous volumes by Conway waiting to be adapted. Of course they still have to be written. But I have no doubt that the author is up to it.
Thanks in advance.
‘Magpie Murders on Masterpiece’
When: Sunday, 9 p.m
Valuation: TV-14 (may be unsuitable for children under 14 years old)
https://www.latimes.com/entertainment-arts/tv/story/2022-10-16/magpie-murders-lesley-manville-anthony-horowitz-pbs-review ‘Magpie Murders’ PBS has all you want in a British mystery