Amusing Whodunnit ‘Magpie Murders’ Delivers Quaint Mystery Within a Mystery: TV Review

One for sorrow, two for joy.

Three for a girl, four for a boy.

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Five for silver, six for gold.

Seven for a story yet to be told.

Or, in the case of this “Magpie,” make that two stories yet to be told.

The latest limited series from PBS’s Masterpiece, “Magpie Murders,” may be derived from the popular children’s nursery rhyme, but the way director Peter Cattaneo unfolds the mystery within a mystery in this whodunnit is anything but child’s play.

The story, based on the 2016 novel by Anthony Hororwitz (the first in The Susan Ryeland series), begins when famed author Alan Conway (Conleth Hill, Varys from “Game of Thrones”) dies shortly after handing in his new manuscript: “Magpie Murders.” The man’s death is suspicious, and the final chapter of his story is missing, setting up a meta mystery within a mystery that’s as much fun to follow as it is to solve. Hororwitz, one of the main writers of the British crime drama “Midsommer Murders,” adapted his own work here.

In the present day, Alan’s editor Susan (Lesley Manville, “Phantom Thread”) isn’t convinced her author’s death was an accident. So she launches an unofficial investigation while hunting for the missing chapter—the last in a blockbuster series of novels about the fictional detective Atticus Pünd.

There’s no shortage of characters to accuse, either. From the scorned boyfriend and the angry sister, to the man who claims Alan plagiarized his works and a missing secretary, each of the six episodes lines up the suspects until the dramatic conclusion.

At the same time, these episodes also unfold the secondary “Magpie Murders” whodunnit, bringing the manuscript’s chapters to life in separate scenes. Pünd (Tim McMullan, “Patrick Melrose”) is the Poirot-like figure heading up the investigation, while other characters are often played by the same actors from the present-day story. That’s because Alan based these fictional figures on people in his own life, typically in unflattering ways.

Part of the brilliance of the story is that as each fictional character evolves, the motives for the present-day characters shift, pulling together a tapestry of stories that keep you guessing at every turn. As a result, viewers get the larger-than-life detective who is smarter than everyone else in the room, while the main protagonist serves as the gin-guzzling everywoman just trying to figure out what the hell is going on.

It sounds like a lot to keep track of, but that’s where Horowitz and Cattaneo shine. Clever transitions bridge the two worlds while linking Susan and Pünd, and period costumes help to clarify which world the story is following in each scene. Before long, part of the fun is in spotting the character links, figuring out who they were to Alan, and guessing their roles in the fictionalized murders.

It’s the type of old-fashioned, Agatha Christie-inspired sleuthing popularized these days by projects like “Knives Out,” and “Only Murders in the Building.” Everything ties up in six tidy episodes, although some may easily guess the killers with the plot’s convenient turns, which gush out as the final two episodes rush to a conclusion (as clue-holding shows of this nature tend to do). That doesn’t make the ride any less fun.

Those pacing glitches are also forgiven thanks to compelling performances from the three principals. Manville’s Susan doesn’t strive to be a likeable lead, but is a workaholic editor with a traumatic past who is chasing closure. Through her relationship with her sister (Claire Rushbrook) viewers glimpse the open-hearted person she once was, while her current beau (Alexandros Logothetis) allows her insightful moments of tenderness.

Hill’s Alan, however, gives Lord Varys some stiff competition in the cruelty category. It’s impossible to turn away from Hill’s face as Alan’s manipulative composure and powerful voice shift from kindness to anger, delivering a complex performance of a guy who has a lot hidden under the surface.

As for McMullan’s Pünd, he fits seamlessly into the larger-than-life detective with quirky mannerisms, a polite disposition and a brilliant mind. It’s not a three-dimensional take, per se, but a beloved caricature come to life in a quaint, lighthearted way. That take further differentiates the manuscript’s tone from Susan’s world, adding more depth to the overall series.

The duality of the mysteries aside, “Magpie Murders” isn’t game-changing material, but it certainly scratches that nostalgic itch if you’re looking for a murder mystery with entertaining twists and interesting characters. It also supplies an inside-baseball look at how such fare is made without ever taking itself too seriously, delivering the perfect little watch when you want to snuggle up inside on a cold fall night with a warm cup of tea.

“Magpie Murders” debuts Oct. 16 on PBS’s Masterpiece and runs Sunday nights until Nov. 20.

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