There are few audiobooks that have bowled me over as completely as Anthony Horowitz’s Magpie Murders did when I first listened it several years ago.
It wasn’t because the novel’s plotting was especially tight (although it is), nor was it because the “meta twist” that serves as its scaffolding is approached with a light enough touch to avoid coming off as a twee gimmick (although that’s true, too). Rather, it was because the casting (featuring Samantha Bond and Allan Corduner) and production choices made by HarperAudio, when combined with the whole Horowitz-in-his-prime package and the moody Mid-Atlantic autumn I was driving around listening to it all in, made for an experience so visceral that it literally had me shifting freelance gears and pitching brand new audiobook coverage right here at Paste.
As I wrote then, when adding the title to the list of the Best Audiobooks of 2017:
Mysteries are almost made for audiobooks, as they benefit from the fact that you can’t flip ahead to read the ending. This benefits the reader twice over in Magpie Murders, as the gimmick is that a famous mystery writer’s editor is reading the writer’s latest manuscript—only to find that the writer has died and the manuscript is unfinished. This leaves the editor to chase down the book’s and the writer’s endings on her own. Horowitz effectively differentiates between his book and the book within the book by changing tense and POV (one is first person past, the other third person present). But this audio production [adds to the effect by] employing two different narrators, making for a very effective differentiation between the two stories—and a very jarring jolt back to “reality” with each narrator switch. The mysteries are good, but it’s the narrative experience that makes them great.
Leaving aside the implication that I’m a person who regularly flips ahead to read books’ endings (sorry! I just hate tension!), the creative inflexibility that makes the audiobook format so good for twisty mysteries is just as true of television. And where an audiobook can capitalize on an author’s shrewd stylistic choices by, say, producing the two halves of a bifurcated mystery as though they were two distinct audiobooks entirely, a television series can do the same, but with visuals.
Which is why I was so excited to hear that Britbox—the five-year-old collaborative streaming service from the BBC and ITV—was planning to adapt it as a Britbox Original series, and even more excited when it transpired that it would Horowitz, himself, doing the adaptation. Author of more than 50 detective novels and spy thrillers, including the wildly popular Alex Rider series, Horowitz is *also* the screenwriter (and often creator) behind some of the best British crime and mystery dramas of the last couple decades. Murder in Mind? New Blood? Foyle’s War? All Horowitz creations, all very good. Equally solid, the updated reimagining of Alex Rider that he brought to Amazon Freevee in late 2020.
Which is all to say, if Magpie Murders was ever going to be as twistily compelling on the screen as it is on the page and in audio, Horowitz had maybe the best chance possible of pulling it off.
If this sounds like the set-up to a disappointing review, it’s not! Having reviewed all six episodes of the Britbox series—which, a bit confusingly, is due to premiere for American audiences on PBS this coming Sunday as part of this October’s Masterpiece Mystery! lineup—I am happy to say that it is extremely good. Stars Lesley Manville, Conleth Hill, and Tim McMullan are compelling in their respective roles as crime editor-turned-chance sleuth Susan Ryeland, her nightmare star author-turned-murder victim Alan Conway, and the coolly meticulous post-war detective Atticus Pünd at the heart of Conway’s award-winning whodunnit series, whose final, unfinished adventure is what kicks Susan into mystery-solving mode to begin with. Similarly good are director Peter Cattaneo and cinematographer Anna Valdez-Hanks, who skillfully shepherd the viewer between Susan’s “real” investigation in the present day and Pünd’s “fictional” one in the 1950s by flooding Susan’s world with clear, natural light, and steeping Pünd’s in a warm gold that calls to mind the Golden Age of British Detective Fiction that Alan Conway’s books so blatantly call back to.
The supporting cast, meanwhile, is perhaps even stronger than the core, as the majority are tasked with playing two distinct roles, first as the callous and/or venal fictional characters populating the sleepy English village of Conway’s final Atticus Pünd mystery, and then as the “real” people from Alan’s life he took such mean-spirited glee turning into callous caricatures on the page. Matthew Beard, in particular, shines as both Fraser, Pünd’s limp and dimwitted assistant, and James Taylor, Alan’s catty, outspoken ex-boyfriend. And while Alexandros Logothetis, as Susan’s Greek romantic partner Andreas, gets away with only having to play the “real,” he absolutely kills it at the obligatory tightrope walk Horowitz has him doing between “ideal boyfriend” and “possible nightmare” as Susan’s investigation into Alan’s death gets even more tangled towards the end of the season.
The only place where the Birtbox/Masterpiece adaptation of Magpie Murders falls short, really, is how sharply it pulls back from the hyper-meta structure of the book, which isn’t just about Susan finding herself stymied by the shocking incompleteness of Alan’s final manuscript, but is framed in such a way that readers might as well be Susan from the first page, effectively setting them up to be just as stymied as Susan is when the book hits that abrupt lack of resolution. The “About the Author” it opens with is for Alan Conway. The list of related titles it follows with is of the Atticus Pünd series. The two-page spread of praise that follows that—including blurbs from Ian Rankin and Robert Harris—are also about Atticus Pünd, as is the note at the end that the books are Soon to be a major BBC One television series. In the audio version, the ominous prologue from Susan that immediately follows, all about how reading Magpie Murders changed her life in ways she wouldn’t ever have chosen, are moved to the front of the recording, giving narrator Samantha Bond a mere six minutes with the listener before handing the reins over to Allan Corduner, who picks up with Alan Conway’s fictional author’s note and doesn’t hand them back to Bond until more than seven and a half hours later.
This choice, to quote my own review from 2017, is jarring. And with the intimacy that the audio format brings, just so, so effective.
And yet, it’s not the approach that this television adaptation of Magpie Murders takes. Instead, the series breaks Susan’s reading of the manuscript up into more bite-sized morsels, the better to intersperse character introductions and world-building before the series is half over. Horowitz and co. take some pains in introducing novel, television-specific devices to make up for this shift, to be fair—making Pünd a hallucinatory mentor to Susan as she investigates, for one example, or using the travel of their respective cars through the English countryside as literal vehicles for shifting between narrative realities—but mishmashing Susan and Pünd’s stories together from the start necessarily pulls the punch of the “here’s one mystery, but PSYCH not the ending!!” gambit of Horowitz’s longform original.
That said, no one who’s coming to this adaptation having not read the book is going to know that there’s anything that’s been lost in translation, and it’s hard to imagine that anyone who has read it will be likely to care enough to let the change ruin their enjoyment of what really is a clever and innovative mystery series. I mean, for as much as I genuinely wanted to be thrown for a brand new loop watching Pünd’s world cut back to Susan’s the moment he tells Fraser he’s solved everything (just like I was thrown back when I was listening to the audio for the first time in 2017), I mostly only marked the difference down as another watch note once it became clear that wasn’t what the show was intending to do. Because the show itself is very good!
Still, I can’t help but hold out hope that when the series inevitably comes back to adapt Moonflower Murders in a second season, it does something completely, unfathomably new. I’m ready, Britbox, to be jarred all over again.
Magpie Murders premieres Sunday, October 16th on PBS Masterpiece Mystery.
Alexis Gunderson is a TV critic and audiobibliophile. She
can be found @AlexisKG.
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