"Magpie Murders" creator on the finale revelation: "The anagram is disgusting"

Author Anthony Horowitz tells Salon about avoiding a bad word, a Sherlock Holmes inspiration and what comes next

By Hanh Nguyen

Senior Editor

Published November 20, 2022 10:00PM (EST)

Lesley Manville as Susan Ryeland in "Magpie Murders" (PBS/Eleventh Hour Films/ Nick Wall)
Lesley Manville as Susan Ryeland in "Magpie Murders" (PBS/Eleventh Hour Films/ Nick Wall)

The following contains the spoilery solution to the dual mysteries in "Magpie Murders."

"The more successful he was, the more miserable he became." 

Book editor Susan Ryeland (Lesley Manville) provides this insight into the mindset of bestselling mystery author Alan Conway's (Conleth Hill) actions in the finale of "Magpie Murders." After receiving a fatal diagnosis, the snooty Alan schemes to forever taint the legacy of his popular Atticus Pünd detective novels, believing them to be frivolous pap and not "important" writing.

His plan? With the imminent publication of his final book titled "Magpie Murders," eagle-eyed readers would realize that unscrambling the first letters for each novel in the detective series would spell out "AN ANAGRAM." In turn, that would lead readers to unscrambling the ultimate anagram of all, the name of Alan's famed detective, ATTICUS PUND

"A STUPID . . . " Susan helpfully spells out, albeit incompletely, ". . . and that leaves a four-letter word – one of the worst, one of the most offensive in the English language."

"The anagram is disgusting. I mean, it's horrible, really."

Horrified, Susan's publishing colleague and boss, Charles Clover (Michael Maloney), kills Alan in order to change the title of the final book (naming it "The Magpie Murders" would ruin the anagram tip-off) and thus save the entire business from losing the Atticus Pünd legacy and sales.

Anthony Horowitz, who had written the original novel "Magpie Murders," spoke to Salon about maintaining that specific ending when adapting his book for television.

"Whenever I wrote for 'Agatha Christie's Poirot,' . . . I could do almost anything with the stories I was adapting except change the murder and the solution," said Horowitz. "I think that is actually quite a good rule. They are the tentpoles of a murder mystery novel: essentially the killer, the motive and the method of killing. Other than that you could do anything you want."

Horowitz also applied that rule to the show's other mystery, the one contained in Alan's 1950s-set novel. Atticus Pünd (Tim McMullan) himself reveals that Robert Blakiston (Harry Lawty) is guilty of murder . . . but not that of his mother, who perished accidentally tumbling down a staircase. Mary Blakiston (Karen Westwood) had known that her son was homicidal – having witnessed him covering up killing his own brother in childhood – and to protect herself, wrote a letter to her employer Sir Magnus Pye (Lorcan Cranitch) revealing that fact in the event of her demise.

The letter was supposed to be insurance to keep Mary's son from killing her, but when she died accidentally anyway, Robert remembered the letter. To protect himself, he killed Sir Magnus and then burned the letter . . . but was sloppy with the coverup.

In the rest of Salon's interview, Horowitz discusses the origins of Alan Conway's outrageous scheme, bringing Atticus Pünd outside the pages of his mystery and possible plans to continue Susan Ryeland's adventures.

The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

You kept the killer and solution from your book, but what did you feel needed to be changed when adapting this complex mystery-within-a-mystery into a TV show?

With "Magpie Murders," which is a 650-page novel, my first decision was that something had to go; there were too many characters. And guided by the producer, Jill Greene, I decided that I would cut back very, very heavily on the '50s material, because that was stock characters and red herrings, etc.

I was more interested in Susan, her relationship with Atticus and the modern world. So that was the first decision I made and the other thing I did, which was really important, was having a character played by Lesley Manville, she had to have depth. This show was about her and not just about her solving a murder. So I added all that material about her father, about her betrayal as as a young girl, her relationship with her sister. All that came in as extra material, which as it were shifted out some of the clues and the suspects that were the business of a murder mystery, I think to the show's great advantage.

Magpie MurdersConleth Hill as Alan Conway in "Magpie Murders" (PBS/Eleventh Hour Films)What I found interesting about Alan Conway's dastardly scheme with the anagram is why he did it. Although he hated the popularity of his books, he didn't just kill off his main character Atticus Pünd. He tried to blow the entire thing up, which seems extreme.

That was the original idea that I had 10 years before I actually wrote the book. It was a writer who hates his detective so much, he wants to not just kill him, but trash him so that these books will never, ever be read again. And that's what Alan Conway does, and it's built in to his entire oeuvre. That was the idea of how there had to be the anagram. That is the core of the story.

The anagram is disgusting. I mean, it's horrible, really. And if you look at the way it's filmed, we did have problems because there were things that we could not show or say on American television because they are considered too offensive. And we had to work our way around that. I didn't want to offend an American-viewing audience, particularly as my demographic in America – probably a lot of age ranges – but thanks to "Foyle's War," I am known for a more liberal, more senior and a more genteel audience, if I may call them that. I didn't want to offend them. I'm not that sort of writer. So so we had to work very, very hard to make that work in a way that made sense but did not offend.

I was wondering while I was watching if the word would be said or printed anywhere onscreen or if that still might be deemed too edgy for PBS. Was there any discussion about that?

When we did Episode 6, it's fairly clear what we're talking about, but it's not 100% clear. You get the general sense without having to be to be having to have it rubbed in your face, which I think is good. I don't like profanity. I don't like extreme violence. I don't like upsetting drama. I broadly try to avoid women as targets; I think there are too many. I sometimes think there are perhaps too many books with children being killed or being kidnapped or being hurt.

"I've always been fascinated by the fact that Doyle invented the greatest detective the world has ever seen, and was so disdainful of him ... he threw him off the Reichenbach Falls and killed him."

We live in a very difficult and often upsetting world right now we have so much to contend with – from Ukraine to American politics to British politics, to Brexit, to the shortages in the world, to the scariness of global warming – that books and television like "Magpie Murders" are needed, are vital as a place to escape to somewhere to find a comfort and define truth and decency. My writing is all about that; it's not about shocking people. I'm not a prude. I read violent thrillers, thrillers that have high sexual content because I read an awful lot. So I'm not sitting there only reading Agatha Christie. But nonetheless, I do think that my role as a writer is largely to entertain in a sort of a light-hearted and endearing way. That's what I'm trying to do anyway.

As despicable as Alan Conway is, his pretensions are delightful. I especially enjoyed how bad his "important" novel "The Slide" was. Did you have fun creating such a pompous character and his awful writing?

I loved writing it, I love it as parody. It's of course an appalling novel. Alan Conway is inspired by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the inventor of Sherlock Holmes. I've always been fascinated by the fact that Doyle invented the greatest detective the world has ever seen and yet was so disdainful of him and feeling this was beneath his talents. But what did he do? After just three books, he threw him off the Reichenbach Falls and killed him [in "The Final Problem"]. Later on, he brought him back because basically he needed the money. And I find that sort of tension very interesting.

The same is true of Ian Fleming, creator of James Bond. He had created the greatest spy in fiction and was known for his children's book "Chitty Chitty Bang, Bang." But he had felt sadly embarrassed where he didn't even want to show "Casino Royale" to his publisher because he thought they'd sneer at it. These geniuses don't realize what they've created. Hergé, the illustrator and writer of Tintin and another of my great heroes, once drew a picture of himself slaving at the desk, with Tintin holding a whip over him showing a sort of disdain. Agatha Christie sneered at Poirot and said that he was an egotistical, pompous little poppy or words to that effect.

I find that really interesting – writers who don't accept what they have done. I am not one of those. Instead I am totally happy with my output and don't have high ideals about myself, but Alan Conway does, and I find him fascinating for that reason. I sympathize with him in a way. I understand where he's coming from. I look at writers like Ian McEwan or Charles Dickens or Kazuo Ishiguro – the great writers – and I think to myself that I've drawn the short straw being the populist murder mystery writer. Why can't I be as great as them? But I've always been an entertainer, I'm very content with what I do. I have no ideas about my station. I know my limitations – to paraphrase Clint Eastwood as Dirty Harry. 

Magpie MurdersLesley Manville as Susan Ryeland and Tim McMullan as Atticus Pünd in "Magpie Murders" (PBS/Eleventh Hour Films)

Something that struck me when reading the novel that was carried over into the show is just how brutal Charles is when he stomps on Susan after he's already knocked her on the head. I felt that violence really made an impact in this somewhat cozy murder mystery. Were there discussions about keeping that scene in?

That's the most violent scene in it. I didn't  know how it would come out on the screen. I didn't realize it will be as violent as it was, I must be honest. Actor Michael Maloney – goodness knows that performance, that last scene when he brings out all those matches and lights it, I don't know how he doesn't set his own hand on fire. And the way he brutalizes poor Lesley, it's shocking. It really exceeded my expectations. But it's a terrific performance and a scene where the killer finally emerges and reveals themselves – that turn from civility to absolute mad barbarity is really very shaking.

Another difference from the book is the TV show's interaction between Atticus and Susan. We first see him in her rearview mirror but then eventually they just talk to each other and hang out like they're old pals. Could you discuss creating this narrative device and their dynamic? How did you determine what their manner would be together?

I always saw it as being a progression. In the first episode, he's just glimpsed in the mirror of the car. Is he there or isn't he there? And then in the second episode, they talk to each other. But actually though, Susan is in bed, so she could be having a dream too. We're not sure if it's real. As the show continues, the scenes between them become longer, they become more specific, they become slightly more realistic and even a bit more argumentative. She becomes very frustrated with his refusal to tell her the one thing she wants to know which is who did it. And there was a fondness between them.

In Episode 6, everything is turned on its head and everything that's gone before is now seen in a different way. And one of my favorite scenes in the whole series is their passing in the very, very end. I must have seen it 15 times and I seem to find my eyes going getting moist, I well up a little bit, because it is so touching these two characters who sort of love each other but can't hold each other even because they belong in different worlds.

I've read the second Susan Ryeland novel, "Moonflower Murders," which Lesley Manville narrated for the audiobook version. I really enjoyed that one because it takes place in a hotel. Had you considered adapting the sequel for TV as well?

We are hoping to do it. Lesley Manville is very much up for it. It largely depends on how well this show does in America. But PBS "Masterpiece" are very, very keen and excited to continue with us. We had a wonderful relationship with them – the No. 1 partner has been actually America rather than England. If the show is a success, I hope to be [adapting] "Moonflower Murders" as early as February or March of next year. I've lots of ideas already.

Magpie MurdersAlexandros Logothetis as Andreas Patakis and Lesley Manville as Susan Ryeland in "Magpie Murders" (PBS/Eleventh Hour Films/ Nick Wall)As of this time, there are only two Susan Ryeland novels, and they both follow the "story in a story" format, which you had told me takes twice as long to write since you need to create double the murders or solutions. Do you think you have another Ryeland novel in you?

In fact, I've actually signed the contract for it. So there's definitely going to be one more. And I have an idea for it, which makes me smile. I'm a very busy writer, and ideas come into my head every day, and some just just make me smile. I'm not gonna say they're the best ideas anyone's ever thought up or they're going to be brilliant novels, or they're going to work even when they make me smile. But that's the indication I must write them.

You have another detective series, the Hawthorne and Horowitz novels, in which an author with your name pairs up with a detective to write up the murders he solves. It's basically a version of you. Had you ever considered adapting that for screen, and if so who would you want to cast as that version of yourself?

Well, I would love it. They would make wonderful TV. [The character] Hawthorne himself is based on an actor, Charlie Creed-Miles, a very, very interesting British actor who did work with me on a show called "Injustice" that's mentioned in the first book.

Basically I'm plowing the field of metafiction. I realize it's actually quite unexplored territory what you can do when you write about writing, when you have a book about books, when you do detective fiction about detective fiction. It's interesting and it's giving me loads of opportunities to enjoy myself and hopefully to entertain readers. It's reaching apotheosis with the Hawthorne novels. No. 4 "The Twist of a Knife" comes out next week [Nov. 15]. 

I'd love to see those books go on television and possibly reconfigured, so they'd be not just books about books, but television shows about television. You'd actually get the sense of the behind the cameras of what's going on. I think there's something really exciting to be done there. So Charlie Creed-Miles, who inspired Hawthorne, could play him. As to who will play me – definitely not me. I can't act. I always say, "Would George Clooney be interested? Is he good-looking enough?" But failing that, Rory Kinnear who narrates the audiobook, is so brilliant on all the characters. I think he would make an interesting me.

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I've been listening to the audiobooks of the Hawthorne and Horowitz series, and Rory Kinnear is great in it. I also enjoy all the metafiction in there. I'm just laughing while I listen most of the time to hear about this author dealing with the issues of writing, agents, festivals and all of that in the midst of murder.

It is fun. And just you wait for "The Twist of a Knife," which is the one set in the world of theater. It has a critic giving a really terrible review of one of my plays, and then getting murdered the next day . . .  it would seem by me. I think it's the best of them so far. Every time I write one, I enjoy it more. And I hope to do about 12, somewhere around there. And so that's a lot of writing to be getting on with. 

By Hanh Nguyen

Hanh Nguyen is the Senior Editor of Culture, which covers TV, movies, books, music, podcasts, art, and more. Her work has also appeared in IndieWire, and The Hollywood Reporter. She co-hosts the "Good Pop Culture Club" podcast, which examines the good pop that gets us through our days, from an Asian American perspective. Follow her at Hanhonymous.

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