One for sadness, two for happiness.
Three for a girl, four for a boy.
Five in silver, six in gold.
Seven to tell yet.
Or, in this “Magipi” case, treat those two stories as yet untold.
The latest limited series from the PBS masterpiece “Magipi Murders” may be based on a popular nursery rhyme, but director Peter Cattaneo’s way of unraveling the mystery in this mystery is anything but child’s play.
Based on the 2016 novel by Anthony Horowitz (the first in the Susan Ryland series), the story begins when famous author Alan Conway (Conlet Hill, from “Game of Thrones”) dies shortly after handing in his new manuscript: “The Magpie Murders.” The man’s death is suspicious, and the story ends. A chapter is lost, setting up a meta-mystery within a mystery that’s as fun as solving it. Horowitz, the mastermind behind the British crime drama “Midsomer Murders,” adapted his work here.
Back in the day, Alan’s editor Susan (Leslie Manville, “Phantom Thread”) doesn’t believe her author’s death was an accident. So while hunting for the missing chapter, she begins an undercover investigation—the latest in a series of novels about the fictional detective Atticus Pound.
There is no shortage of characters to sue. From a scorned boyfriend and an angry sister to a man who claims Alan faked his jobs and a missing secretary, each of the six episodes builds up suspects to its dramatic conclusion.
At the same time, these episodes will bring the chapters of the manuscript to life in various scenes and open the second stage, “Magipi Murders”. Pünd (Tim McMullan, “Patrick Melrose”) leads the investigation as a Poirot-type figure, with other characters often played by similar modern-day actors. That’s because Alan bases these novels on people in his life, usually in an unflattering way.
Part of the story’s brilliance is that as each fictional character evolves, the current characters’ motives change, weaving together stories that keep you guessing at every turn. As a result, the audience gets a larger-than-life detective who’s smarter than everyone else in the room, while the main character acts like a gin-guzzling woman trying to figure out what the hell is going on.
It seems like a lot to keep track of, but that’s where Horowitz and Cattaneo shine. Clever transitions connect the two worlds, connecting Susan and Pun, and the period costumes help make it clear which world the story is following in each scene. Soon, part of the fun is identifying the characters’ connections, figuring out who they were, and guessing their role in the fictional killers.
It’s the kind of old-fashioned, Agatha Christie-inspired sleuthing that’s now popularized by projects like “Knives Out” and “Just Murders Under Construction.” Everything is tied up in six neat episodes, although some can easily guess the killers with the convenient twists of the plot, as the last two episodes rush to the conclusion (as the catch of this nature shows). That doesn’t make the trip any less fun.
Those pacing flaws are forgiven by the convincing performances of the three principals. Manville’s Susan doesn’t strive to be a likable lead, but a career editor with a traumatic past chasing closure. Through her relationship with her sister (Claire Rushbrook), viewers get glimpses of the hearty person she once was, while her current beau (Alexandros Logothetis) allows for moments of subtle tenderness.
Alan of the Hill, however, gives Lord Varys some stiff competition in the brutal category. It’s impossible to turn away from Hill’s face as Alan’s rolling calm and powerful voice veers from kindness to fury, conveying the complexities of humanity hidden within.
As for McMullan’s Pünd, he matches the larger-than-life detective with gentle demeanor, gentle demeanor and a brilliant mind. It’s not three-dimensional action, but a beloved caricature comes to life in a simple and easy way. This take further differentiates the tone of the novel from Susan’s world, adding more depth to the series as a whole.
The combination of mysteries aside, “Magipi Murders” isn’t game-changing material, but if you’re looking for a murder mystery with an interesting twist and interesting characters, it’ll definitely whet your appetite. It also offers an inside-baseball look at how such fare works without taking itself too seriously, making for the perfect little watch when you want to snuggle up inside with a warm cup of tea on a chilly fall night.
“Magpie Murders” premieres Oct. 16 on PBS Prime and runs Sunday nights through Nov. 20.