It’s Magpie Murders, not The Magpie Murders!

Yes, the definite article makes a difference…not because we’re being pedantic, but because we’re being attentive to anagrams and acrostics.

Here’s the problem: I’m talking, of course, about the recent PBS Masterpiece series by Anthony Horowitz, titled Magpie Murders, as was Horowitz’s own book that the TV series was based on. It’s well-acted, entertaining, engrossing, and sometimes confusing. The last is because it’s just like The Woman in the Library in one important way: not only is it a story within a story, but it takes place in three worlds: there’s the so-called real world, in which the outermost story takes place; we see within it the middle story, that of an editor and her friends and colleagues in 2015; and then periodically we switch to 1955, the time period of the action of a detective novel. I say “periodically,” but therein lies the major difference between Horowitz’s novel and his own adaptation.


In Horowitz’s novel, the first half is the 1955 tale, and you don’t find out that it’s a story within a story until the midpoint, where you suddenly pop up a level and are in the 2015 story. But that wouldn’t work for a one-episode-a-week television show, so there are two major changes: each episode contains scenes from both time periods, and there is some bleed-through where the 1955 detective sometimes appears in 2015. To make it more confusing, the same actors appear in both, since the fictional author based his characters on people he knew. Fortunately there’s a simple way to tell which period you’re in: cars and hats. In particular, all the men wear hats in the 1955 scenes, as they did IRL.

Anyhow I enjoyed the series a lot, but I do have one bone to pick. As I said at the top, the solution to the mystery is based on noticing an acrostic and an anagram—not just noticing them but also solving them. Given the pace of TV shows, the action goes by too quickly to realize that these puzzles are there to be noticed and solved. Yes, you can pause the action if you have DVR’d the episode and if it even occurs to you to pause it at the right time, but why would it occur to you? If you do watch the series, please be sure to watch all the way to the end of each episode, as the last ten minutes or so (after the commercials and announcements) of each one consist of a short lecture by Horowitz about the episode you’ve just seen. These provide important insights, even if the author is a bit too full of himself; I find it a bit unseemly for him to comment on how interesting or how clever some idea is. Anyway, the show is definitely worth seeing. And you’ll find out finally why they make such a point of the lack of a definite article in the title!

Categories: Books, Movies & (occasionally) TV