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'Magpie Murders' is a hall-of-mirrors whodunit with a satisfying resolution

Lesley Manville (shown here with Danielle Ryan, right) plays editor-turned-detective Susan Ryeland in <em>Magpie Murders</em>.
Bernard Walsh
Eleventh Hour Film
Lesley Manville (shown here with Danielle Ryan, right) plays editor-turned-detective Susan Ryeland in Magpie Murders.

Ever since Edgar Allan Poe created the modern detective story, mystery writers have sought ways to keep the genre exciting — dreaming up impossible crimes in locked rooms, setting murders in unexpected places, including medieval monasteries, South Korean military bases and cyberspace. These days, they've grown fond of what we can call the meta-mystery, the mystery about a mystery.

A textbook example is Magpie Murders, PBS' new series on MASTERPIECE Mystery! It's based on the bestselling novel by Anthony Horowitz, who, among other things, created the excellent World War II detective show Foyle's War. But where that earlier series was steeped in history, this lively new one is about the perils and pleasures of cleverness.

Lesley Manville stars as Susan Ryeland, a London book editor who doesn't get along with her most important writer, Alan Conway. He's played by Conleth Hill, best known as the eunuch Lord Varys in Game of Thrones. A nasty sort, Conway has grown rich writing novels about a 1950s detective named Atticus Pünd. As the show begins, he's just turned in his latest book, also titled Magpie Murders. But there are two problems. The copy Susan receives is missing the final chapter in which Atticus Pünd solves the mystery. Even worse, Conway has been found dead in his country mansion in Suffolk. Is his death suicide — or murder?

Susan desperately tries to find the missing pages. Meeting with the people who know Conway, she soon grasps that his latest Pünd novel is populated with characters who are actually caricatures of them — his sister, his ex-wife, his just-dumped boyfriend, his aggrieved gardener, and so forth. They all have reason to hate him. If Conway was murdered, his novel — and missing final chapter — may hold the answer to who did it.

All of this makes the TV series Magpie Murders something of a hall of mirrors. Even as Susan looks for answers about Conway's novel in the real world, the show offers a parallel track along which we watch Atticus Pünd — wryly played by Tim McMullan — attempt to solve the murder story in Conway's novel. Several of the actors appear in both tracks — for instance, Matthew Beard plays both Conway's cynical ex-boyfriend and Pünd's dim sidekick. As if that weren't enough, Susan even begins having conversations with Atticus Pünd, who gives her mystery-solving advice.

Now, Magpie Murders is not the first time someone has woven its protagonist into a fictional storyline. Buster Keaton did it more wittily in Sherlock, Jr., where he plays a wannabe detective who falls asleep and enters a crime movie; Dennis Potter did it more movingly in The Singing Detective, about a man in a hospital who weaves a private eye story to help escape the pain of his life.

Yet to say that the series doesn't rival those two landmarks is hardly a damning criticism. The show is brisk and very enjoyably acted, especially by Manville, whom you may know from numerous Mike Leigh films and as the sister to Daniel Day-Lewis' character in The Phantom Thread. She plays Susan with just the right level of seriousness. She nails the script's sharp lines and captures the bustling way that she buries herself in her job, thereby letting her avoid 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 the cleverness of Atticus Pünd. Horowitz, who adapted his own novel, clearly feels no such artistic frustration. Possessed of 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 clever and entertaining. On the contrary.

Indeed, Magpie Murders neatly riffs on the relationship of art and life. It's especially astute about the consolations of detective novels. In a world of emotional uncertainties, Susan notes, the Atticus Pünd novels offer the pleasurable closure of a neat resolution. The same is true of this TV series. Our daily lives may not be easy, but at the end of Magpie Murders we get the satisfaction of knowing who done it.

Copyright 2022 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

John Powers
John Powers is the pop culture and critic-at-large on NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross. He previously served for six years as the film critic.