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

Magie Murders is 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.



Other segments from the episode on October 13, 2022

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, October 13, 2022: Interview with Ed Yong; Review of Magpie Murders.



This is FRESH AIR. In the mystery series "Magpie Murders," Lesley Manville stars as a book editor whose bestselling writer turns up dead in circumstances she finds suspicious. The first episode of this six-part show premieres Sunday on PBS' "Masterpiece Mystery." Our critic-at-large, John Powers, says that the show begins with a classic mystery puzzle and then gives it an entertaining modern-day spin.

JOHN POWERS, BYLINE: 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 like medieval monasteries, South Korean military bases and cyberspace. These days, they've grown fond what we can call the metamystery - the mystery about a mystery.

A textbook example is "Magpie Murders," PBS' is 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 Pund. 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 its final chapter in which Atticus Pund 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 knew Conway, she soon grasps that his latest Pund novel is populated with characters who were 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 Pund, 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 Pund's dim sidekick. As if that weren't enough, Susan even begins having conversations with Atticus Pund, who gives her mystery-solving advice. Here, in a scene that captures the show's rhythm, Susan talks to her boss about finding the missing chapter.


MICHAEL MALONEY: (As Charles Clover) So what are you going to do?

LESLEY MANVILLE: (As Susan Ryeland) I'm going to go to Suffolk and look for the missing pages. Alan gave you the manuscript on Thursday night.

MALONEY: (As Charles Clover) Yes.

MANVILLE: (As Susan Ryeland) But he always used a pen for the first draft.

MALONEY: (As Charles Clover) So?

MANVILLE: (As Susan Ryeland) So there'll be a handwritten draft. First draft, second draft, notes, other copies - there's got to be something.

MALONEY: (As Charles Clover) Where will you stay?

MANVILLE: (As Susan Ryeland) Well, I've got my sister in Woodbridge. She can put me up.

MALONEY: (As Charles Clover) All right, take care. And let me know how you get on.

MANVILLE: (As Susan Ryeland) Yeah. I can't believe I finally get to see his house. Just had to wait until he was dead.

POWERS: Now, "Magpie Murders" is not the first time someone has woven his 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" whose hospital bed-bound hero weaves a private eye story to help escape the pain of his life.

Yet to say that this 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 Daniel Day-Lewis' sister 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 Pund. 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 or 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 Pund 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.

DAVIES: John Powers reviewed the new PBS series "Magpie Murders," beginning Sunday on "Masterpiece Mystery." If you'd like to catch up on FRESH AIR interviews you've missed, like this week's interview with New York Times reporter Maggie Haberman, who shares insights about Donald Trump based on her decades of reporting on him, or with food writer and cookbook author Melissa Clark, check out our podcast. You'll find lots of FRESH AIR interviews. And if you'd like a peek behind the scenes at FRESH AIR, subscribe to our new newsletter. There, you'll find bonus material about the interviews, staff recommendations and highlights from the archives. You can subscribe via our website at


DAVIES: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Roberta Shorrock, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Ann Marie Baldonado, Seth Kelley and Susan Nyakundi. Our digital media producer is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Thea Chaloner directed today's show. For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies.

(SOUNDBITE OF KRONOS QUARTET'S "WELL YOU NEEDN'T") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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