Bernard Walsh/Eleventh Hour Film
Ever since Edgar Allan Poe created the modern detective story, crime novel writers have sought ways to keep the genre exciting – imagining impossible crimes in locked rooms, staging murders in unexpected locations, including medieval monasteries, South Korean military bases and cyberspace. These days, they have taken a liking to what can be called the meta-mystery, the mystery on a mystery.
A sample manual is Magpie killings, the new PBS series on MASTERPIECE Mystery! It’s based on the best-selling novel by Anthony Horowitz, who, among other things, created the excellent WWII detective series. Foyle’s War. But where that earlier series was steeped in history, this new anime series is about the perils and pleasures of intelligence.
Lesley Manville stars as Susan Ryeland, a London publisher who doesn’t get along with her most important writer, Alan Conway. He is portrayed by Conleth Hill, better known as the eunuch Lord Varys in game of thrones. A mean guy, Conway got rich writing novels about a 1950s detective named Atticus Pünd. As the show begins, he has just delivered his latest book, also titled Magpie killings. But there are two problems. The copy Susan receives is missing the last chapter in which Atticus Pünd solves the mystery. Worse still, Conway was found dead at his country mansion in Suffolk. Is his death a suicide – or a murder?
Susan tries desperately to find the missing pages. By meeting people who know Conway, she quickly realizes that her latest Pünd novel is populated by characters who are actually caricatures of their – his sister, his ex-wife, his boyfriend who has just been dumped, his aggrieved gardener, etc. They all have reason to hate him. If Conway has been murdered, his novel — and the missing final chapter — may hold the answer to who did it.
All this makes the television series Magpie Murders something of a hall of mirrors. Even as Susan searches for answers about Conway’s novel in the real world, the series offers a parallel track along which we watch Atticus Pünd – wryly played by Tim McMullan – attempt to solve the story of the murder in the novel. of Conway. Several of the actors appear in both leads – for example, Matthew Beard plays both Conway’s cynical ex-boyfriend and Pünd’s dark sidekick. As if that weren’t enough, Susan even starts having conversations with Atticus Pünd, who gives her advice on how to solve the mystery.
Now, Magpie killings isn’t the first time someone has incorporated their protagonist into a fictional storyline. Buster Keaton did it with more spirit in Sherlock, Jr.., where he plays a budding detective who falls asleep and enters a detective film; Dennis Potter did it in a more moving way in The singing detective, about a man in a hospital who weaves a private detective story to help escape the pain of his life.
Still, to say the series doesn’t rival those two benchmarks isn’t a damning criticism. The show is fast-paced and very enjoyable, especially by Manville, who you might know from many of Mike Leigh’s movies and as the sister of Daniel Day-Lewis’ character. in The Ghost Thread. She plays Susan with just enough seriousness. She nails the script’s crisp lines and captures the spirited way she sinks into her work, saving her from dealing with personal issues, like her Greek boyfriend who wants her to move to Crete and run a hotel, or her sister who wants her to make peace with her dying father.
It was the torment of Conway’s literary career that he wanted to write serious books on serious themes, but the public only wanted Atticus Pünd’s intelligence. Horowitz, who adapted his own novel, clearly feels no such artistic frustration. Possessing boundless energy – he’s also written Sherlock Holmes novels, James Bond novels and the Alex Rider YA series, among others – he feels no shame in being smart and entertaining. On the contrary.
In effect, Magpie Murders carefully riffs on the relationship of art and life. He is particularly astute about the consolations of detective novels. In a world of emotional uncertainties, notes Susan, Atticus Pünd’s novels offer a pleasant conclusion to a careful resolution. The same goes for this TV series. Our daily lives may not be easy, but at the end of Magpie killings we have the satisfaction of knowing who did it.