Who better to solve the murder of a murder mystery author than someone who has closely scrutinized all of his murder mysteries? That’s the clever concept of Anthony Horowitz’s novel Magpie Murders, as well as its new six-episode PBS adaptation, written by Horowitz himself. In the real world, Magpie Murders is Horowitz’s first novel featuring Susan Ryeland, a book editor and amateur sleuth. In the world of the TV series, Magpie Murders is the latest novel for Susan to edit by bestselling author Alan Conway (Conleth Hall), starring his popular detective character Atticus Pünd.
As in the source novel, Magpie Murders switches between Susan’s efforts to determine who killed Alan, and the events of Alan’s novel Magpie Murders, in which Pünd (Tim McMullan) attempts to solve the murder of a wealthy landowner in 1955. At first, Susan (Lesley Manville) is motivated more by professional concerns, since Alan turned in Magpie Murders with its final chapter missing. But it doesn’t take long for her to become convinced that Alan’s death, which had been ruled a suicide, was actually the result of foul play.
One thing that Horowitz can do in a TV series that he can’t do in a novel is cast the same actors in multiple roles, playing characters in Susan’s story and in the Atticus Pünd story from the novel. Since Alan, who was bitter, vindictive, and generally unlikable, used people from his life as inspirations for (unflattering) characters in his novel, repurposing the actors gives Horowitz and director Peter Cattaneo a handy way to visualize those connections.
It can be slightly confusing at first to differentiate the separate characters played by the same actors, especially since the settings are also often the same. But the period costumes help, and both Susan and Pünd, who don’t have duplicates, serve as helpful guides. The two of them occasionally interact, as Susan envisions Pünd giving her advice on solving Alan’s murder, and Manville and McMullan make for satisfying counterpoints as very different kinds of crime-solvers.
Susan is outgoing and friendly, if a bit frazzled by difficulties in her personal life. She’s been offered the chance to become CEO of the independent publisher where she works, after it’s acquired by a major corporation, but her Greek boyfriend wants her to move to Crete with him to run a hotel. Pünd is more reserved and contemplative, and he’s dealing with much more serious personal problems, having been diagnosed with terminal cancer.
Alan, too, was suffering from terminal cancer, and had planned to kill off Pünd in Magpie Murders, getting rid of a character he had always resented. One of the most amusing things about the show is how much of an unrepentant bastard Alan is, and how much he looked down on the mystery genre, even as he became one of its most successful practitioners. Horowitz weaves an engaging, intelligent whodunit about someone who thinks such stories are worthless trash.
Hall makes Alan delightfully reprehensible, and he appears onscreen just often enough to drive the plot without overwhelming it with his vitriol. Susan and Pünd are much more likable, and Manville gives a lovely, emotionally nuanced performance without taking away from the twists and turns of the plot. McMullan has less to work with, in part because Pünd is a fictional character within an already fictional narrative, but he still finds some pathos in a man who’s dying because his creator has such contempt for him.
Fans of cozy PBS mystery series will find plenty to enjoy about Magpie Murders, which draws on Horowitz’s experience writing for shows like Midsomer Murders and Agatha Christie’s Poirot in depicting Pünd’s murder case in a prototypical English village. Viewers who are looking for something a little more self-aware will also enjoy the series, in the way it deconstructs the entire murder-mystery genre, without ever disrespecting it. There’s a tidy wrap-up to both cases in the final episode, but with another Susan Ryeland/Atticus Pünd novel available to adapt, the audience will be eager to see both detectives return.
Discover the Book
When editor Susan Ryeland is given the manuscript of Alan Conway’s latest novel, she has no reason to think it will be much different from any of his others. After working with the bestselling crime writer for years, she’s intimately familiar with his detective, Atticus Pünd, who solves mysteries disturbing sleepy English villages. An homage to queens of classic British crime such as Agatha Christie and Dorothy Sayers, Alan’s traditional formula has proved hugely successful. So successful that Susan must continue to put up with his troubling behavior if she wants to keep her job.
Conway’s latest tale has Atticus Pünd investigating a murder at Pye Hall, a local manor house. Yes, there are dead bodies and a host of intriguing suspects, but the more Susan reads, the more she’s convinced that there is another story hidden in the pages of the manuscript: one of real-life jealousy, greed, ruthless ambition, and murder.
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Josh Bell is a freelance writer and movie/TV critic based in Las Vegas. He’s the former film editor of Las Vegas Weekly and the former TV comedies guide for About.com. He has written about movies, TV, and pop culture for Vulture, Polygon, CBR, Inverse, Crooked Marquee, and more. With comedian Jason Harris, he co-hosts the podcast Awesome Movie Year.