Why would anyone kill anyone? Fictional detective Atticus Pünd poses that question in the intriguing British mystery series Magpie Murders, before answering it based on his own crime-solving experience as the star of a blockbuster mystery book series. “I can think of four reasons,” he says. “Fear, Jealousy, Anger and Desire.”
Suspects in the case of Pünd’s founder, author Alan Conway, who suffered a fatal fall shortly after delivering his long-awaited latest novel The Magpie Murders to his publisher, are not so narrow. It seems no one liked the gruff, idiotic writer played by Conleth Hill (Lord Varys in Game of Thrones). Not his son, who was kicked out of Conway’s country house in Suffolk, nor his sleazy young lover. Her brother is clearly based on her, not his sister, who resents the “absurd loser.” Certainly not the angry fellow writer who claims Conway stole him.
Start twisting your Hercule Poirot handlebar stache, and you’ll have plenty of potential motives and clues to ponder here. And once you’ve been through the witty, suspenseful, suspenseful six-episode PBS Masterpiece series now streaming on Amazon Prime Video, you won’t need to apply your gray matter to much else.
See, Conway isn’t the only one who dies in this time-travel meta-mystery based on the 2016 best-selling book by Anthony Horowitz. The story-within-a-story format also follows the events of Conway’s novel The Magpie Murders, which sees Sir Magnus Pye, a despicably rich townsman beheaded by his own enemies in the 1950s. With fascinatingly intertwined storytelling seamlessly connecting parallel and increasingly intersecting time lines, you get more than a single mystery for the price of one here.
Overlap involves actors doing double duty in past and present narratives, and conceit works well to reinforce recurring motifs. The actor who plays Conway’s son in the present, for example, also plays Pi’s son in Conway’s Magpie Murders — both hate their father. The actor who plays Conway’s sister also portrays Pi’s sister in the 50s narrative — and both have significant grievances against their brothers.
Charles Clover, Conway’s publisher, believed the author had died of his own free will (in it was A suicide note after all). But when Conway’s editor Susan Ryeland searches for the last missing chapter in the Magpie murders, she begins to suspect otherwise.
The good thing is that the brilliant Pünd steps off the pages of Conway’s novels and into Ryeland’s imagination so he can mentor her as she turns from editor to apprentice detective. Finding out how and why Conway died could lead to the Ryeland MIA manuscript so that her employer, Clover Books, can make the best-selling author’s latest work available to readers interested in solving another Pünd mystery. “A whodunit without a solution… it’s not even worth the paper it won’t print on,” she laments.
Pünd (Tim McMullan, Patrick Melrose) and the ambitious, often confused Ryland (the ever-amazing Leslie Manville in Phantom Thread and the moving Mike Leigh in Another Year ) form a formidable investigative team as they puzzle through modern London. Mid-20th century Saxby-on-Avon is a charming fictional village where neighbors politely greet each other on a main street lined with flower stands and quaint antique shops. It is a dark buried secret city and the site of the gruesome murder of Sir Magnus Pye in Conway’s novel The Magpie Murders.
If that all sounds a bit confusing, the strength of the series, masterfully directed by Peter Cattaneo (The Full Monty), is how it manages to flow between timelines in often very creative ways. In one scene, for example, when Pünd and his assistant approach a fork in the road in their 1950s auto, her little red sports car sweeps us back to the present. Susan Ryland.
Past and present also echo each other in themes: parent-child relationships, death, deceit and cruelty. “Everything in life is part of a pattern,” Atticus Pünd tells his dark sidekick in Magpie Murders. I leave it to you to investigate which ones apply.