sat 18/05/2024

Magpie Murders, BBC One review - zinging TV adaptation of Anthony Horowitz's bestseller | reviews, news & interviews

Magpie Murders, BBC One review - zinging TV adaptation of Anthony Horowitz's bestseller

Magpie Murders, BBC One review - zinging TV adaptation of Anthony Horowitz's bestseller

Not only a whodunnit, but also a two-dunnit

Top-down detection: Lesley Manville as Susan Ryeland

Finding a fresh twist on the traditional detective mystery is virtually impossible, but Anthony Horowitz has made a bold stab at it with Magpie Murders. This TV adaptation (which appeared on the BritBox streaming platform last year) has been masterminded by Horowitz from his 2016 bestseller, which ingeniously features two interlocking stories, one set in the present day and one in the 1950s.

Conleth Hill stars as bestselling crime novelist Alan Conway, a staggeringly wealthy but bitter and disappointed man. He struck it rich with his series of novels featuring the detective Atticus Pünd – Pünd being a survivor of Auschwitz concentration camp, who approaches his investigations with a regretful and cerebral air – but Conway really wanted to write novels of high seriousness whose intellectual cachet would be his permanent legacy.

Magpie Murders, BBC One However, his publisher, Clover Books, is delighted to have Conway’s lucrative string of Pünd bestsellers in its catalogue. So lucrative, in fact, that Charles Clover (Michael Maloney, pictured left), the head of the company, is licking his lips at the prospect of selling out to a wealthy corporate predator with deep pockets. Horowitz’s sceptical depiction of the publishing business is one of the show’s many pleasures.

The only snag is, the buyout deal is contingent on Conway’s latest novel, Magpie Murders (nb: not The Magpie Murders, for reasons yet to be disclosed), being included in the sale, but for some reason the author has delivered it with the crucial final chapter missing. Then comes the shattering news that Conway has been found dead, seemingly having fallen off the high tower at his grandiose Suffolk home. Did he jump, or was he pushed?

Keen to solve the mystery is Conway’s editor Susan Ryeland (Lesley Manville), who hurtles off to Suffolk in her bright red MGB, looking for answers and, above all, the missing chapter. Her journey of discovery turns out be littered with tricky twists and false trails, but what gives Magpie Murders its unique allure is its mischievous double time scheme. Conway’s novel, set in 1955, has been conceived as his revenge on all the people he despises in his life, with his relatives and most of the locals in his home village of Saxby-on-Avon depicted with acidic scorn.

Cunningly, his plot and characters from the slower, sleepier mid-Fifties find distorted echoes in the present. As Susan does her own amateur sleuthing in the village, she receives nods and nudges in the right direction from spectral appearances by the fictional Pünd (Tim McMullan, pictured below, familiar from the Horowitz-penned Foyle’s War), who ambles about in his trench coat and trilby offering cryptic insights into the case.

Magpie Murders, BBC One The murder of local landowner Sir Magnus Pye in Conway’s novel counterpoints the death of Conway himself, while several actors have a role in both time frames. Daniel Mays plays the popular cliche of the dim copper outwitted by the smart detective twice, as Inspector Chubb in 1955 and Locke, on whom he’s modelled, in the present. The doomed Sir Magnus (Lorcan Cranitch) reappears as Susan’s estranged, seriously ill father in the here and now, while Matthew Beard plays Conway’s flamboyant gay lover James Taylor as well as Pünd’s dogged sidekick Fraser back in the Fifties. Sanjeev Kohli doubles up as a lawyer in 2023 and a doctor in 1955.

The effect is like being haunted by a kind of synthetic déjà vu, as you’re sometimes not sure where you’ve seen that face before, and you can’t quite work out how all the pieces fit together. Visual elisions add to this sense of double vision, with perhaps a veteran 1950s Austin saloon disappearing out of the edge of the frame just as Susan’s MG enters it. Credit to director Peter Cattaneo for managing to keep a tight grip on such slippery material.

He has also conjured some fine performances, with Manville splendid as the veteran editor who’s brilliant at her job and shows great promise as an amateur sleuth, but can’t stomach the political shenanigans of the buy-out. Hill’s portrayal of the viper-like Conway is an impeccable mix of sly charm and explosions of uncontrollable spite, while McMullan brings many deft nuances to his portrayal of Pünd. A treat indeed.

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