Magpie Murders: Prior to the advent of global content mining by streaming warriors, British television was almost exclusively distributed to American households via PBS and its affiliates. The network’s literary adaptations and highbrow historical plays could be seen on “Masterpiece Theatre,” while mysteries could be found on “Mystery!”
New on “Masterpiece” and “Masterpiece Mystery!” this Sunday is “Magpie Murders,” adapted by Anthony Horowitz (“Foyle’s War,” “Midsomer Murders“) from his own 2016 book. It’s a mystery based on a mystery novel, with two stories unfolding in parallel through alternating and rhyming scenes, and they give you practically everything you come to British mysteries for over the course of six episodes; it’s tightly plotted, handsomely presented, smartly acted, entirely enjoyable, and structurally unusual.
‘Magpie Murders’ has everything you want in a British mystery
Magpie Murders: Literally, “a village in England” (times two). Baronial manor (times two). A person whose death would be welcomed by a large number of people (times two). An amateur investigator is brought into the main plot by chance; a professional detective, a foreign gentleman not quite in the mold of Hercule Poirot but something of that kind, is featured in the story inside the story (without the tics).
The local police force (hostile in the “actual world,” humorous and helpful in the “fictional”). A charming young assistant. A fresh resolve. Unrecognized as a puzzle for any reason. Things are starting to heat up with the cold case. As for the age-old mystery, did the person fall or was he or she pushed?
Susan Ryeland, portrayed by Lesley Manville, is the editor for a tiny publishing business that rides high on the success of Alan Conway (Conleth Hill), a worldwide bestseller known for his 1950s mystery books starring a chivalrous private investigator and German immigrant called Atticus Pünd (Tim McMullan). Publisher Charles Clover (Michael Maloney) is planning to sell the company because of the success of Conway’s eight previous books and the ninth he has just delivered, also titled “Magpie Murders.”
Magpie Murders: The publication of the new book is also repeatedly emphasized as the only thing keeping the company from potential ruin. (Though Horowitz certainly knows more about publishing than I do, having written numerous books for children, young adults, and older adults, including two Sherlock Holmes and three James Bond novels, the concept that a corporation can live or die on a single volume did seem false to me. Just one thing, your honor.)
After returning from the Frankfurt Book Fair, Susan begins reading the text in peace. She reads slowly enough to enjoy the book’s passages at their own pace but then realizes that the last chapter is missing from her copy and every other copy she can find. An inconvenience escalates into a problem when Conway, a sarcastic man who often made unfavorable fictional representations of the people in his life, is found dead at the base of the tower linked to his sprawling country mansion. “It’s a murder mystery with no answer!” cries Clover. It’s so worthless that it won’t even be printed on paper. )
Magpie Murders, at first thought to be an accident, is then suspected when a suicide note is found. The housekeeper in Conway’s novel takes a deadly fall, and soon after, the housekeeper’s boss, Sir Magnus Pye (Lorcan Cranitch), is found beheaded in the living room/great hall/etc.
Magpie Murders: Because of her training as an editor, Susan is attuned to dissonance and can tell when anything is off. Despite telling her boyfriend Andreas Patakis (Alexandros Logothetis), a disaffected classics teacher with his own connection to the victim, that “these things are always too complicated for me,” she decides to play detective and go to the scene of the crime, first in search of the missing chapter and then to try to figure out the true circumstances of Conway’s death. To this end, Pünd himself appears to her from another realm in a moment of magical realism (albeit he is not shown as a hallucination).
Filmmaker Peter Cattaneo (“The Full Monty”) does a good job with “Magpie Murders”; the film benefits from the stark contrast between the 1955 and 2022 locations, which aids clarity and allows for seamless transitions between the two periods. (There are crossovers in the cast between the two films.) It’s not easy to keep a mystery going for six hours, but the parallel stories here, with Claire Rushbrook as Susan’s sister and Matthew Beard as Pünd’s assistant and Conway’s ex-boyfriend, more than makeup for the challenge.
It’s a great game to play, and the clues are right there, as in any good whodunit. Genre tropes are only ever spoken fondly. Horowitz has penned a love letter to the genre that made him wealthy, while Alan Conway has expressed disdain for it.
Magpie Murders: In fact, the Atticus Pünd section is so brilliantly depicted that I desire a series based on the character; the plot implies that Conway’s eight earlier books are just ready to be adapted. They still need to be written, of course. But I know the author can pull it off.