PBS’ newest mystery series, Magpie Murders, opens with a montage of Alan Conway Conleth Hill) struggling to produce chapter after chapter in his latest whodunit in the wildly popular Atticus Pünd series. (Think Poirot, but German rather than Belgian.) Once the novel is completed, Conway snaps his fountain pen, splattering ink across the page.
Oblivious to Conway’s frustrations, his editor, Head of Fiction at Clover Books Susan Ryeland (Lesley Manville), is off at the Frankfurt Book Fair, promoting her star client’s mystery series. After a hard day of tough negotiating and fending off unwanted advances, a waiter comes to Susan’s hotel room door with champagne she didn’t order. After a little flirty roleplay, we learn the waiter is Susan’s boyfriend, Andreas Pataki (Alexandros Logothetis). She took off a day from teaching ancient Greek in a fancy London school to surprise her for the weekend.
While Ryeland was out, her boss, Charles Clover (Michael Maloney), reports Conway finally delivered the completed Magpie Murders to him over dinner the previous night. It’s good timing, and Charles mentions next week’s buyout meeting, where Citywide Media will want an answer to the generously compensated promotion on offer. Reluctant to get involved in the numbers game of publishing, Susan puts Charles off until Monday since she wants to get a shower and a few gin and tonics down her and settle in to read her client’s latest bestseller.
Atticus Pünd (Tim McMullan) is about to face his greatest challenge, his own mortality. (As Susan reads, Conway’s voice narrates, his characters playing out the 1950s-set action.) During his visit to Harley Street to see Dr. Benson (Beverly Longhurst), the detective receives a disappointing prognosis about his cancer. Atticus tries to make the best of it, saying death has been a constant companion, but it’s obvious he’s distressed.
Irritated, Alan is preparing to kill off his protagonist; Susan calls Clover to see if he is aware of this plot twist. Charles hasn’t finished reading the draft either and suggests they finish the book first and talk Monday.
Conway is in a foul mood as he heads home from London. Outwardly, he’s barking at fans or yelling at Clover for getting the title of his book slightly wrong. Internally he’s reliving the moment he learned of his losing cancer battle from Dr. Rafter (Morgan C. Jones). At the Woodbridge Station parking lot, there’s a long scratch on the side of his car. Two young men (Nathan Clarke and Jack Toland) watch as he inspects it; one, Freddy Conway (Clarke), mutters to his pal he wishes his father would “drop dead.”
As Alan enters the gates of his manor estate, he encounters neighbor Jack White (Karl Collins) driving his Land Rover in the opposite direction. After a brief and comical standoff, Alan gives in and moves around the bigger vehicle. Once in the house, Alan finds his ex-partner, James Taylor (Matthew Beard), waiting for him. Conway was hoping to avoid this awkward scene, but James tried to keep things light, asking if Alan had kept him in the manuscript. Conway makes it clear he’s fed up and, as a parting shot, tells James to leave the car he gave him and take a taxi to the station instead.
Andreas comes round with lunch, and he and Susan discuss his dislike of Conway, which goes back to his teaching days. Susan frets about the job offer, and Andreas reminds her with Atticus Pünd in the catalog things will work out fine. Susan summarizes what she’s read so far, involving the murder of Mary Blakiston (Karen Westwood), the housekeeper at Pye Hall, a grand manor in Saxby on Avon. She then returns to her reading.
Pünd returns to his flat/office, where he is met by his concerned assistant, James Fraser (also played by Matthew Beard), reminding him Joy Sanderling (Nia Deacon), a potential client is on her way. The detective isn’t keen on taking another case, but James insists. Over tea, she sets out her predicament: Gossip is swirling back home that her fiancé, Robert Blakiston (Harry Lawley), is involved in the death of his mother, Mary. She publicly confronted Robert on the street, calling him the biggest disappointment of her life for failing to fix a light fixture; he suggested she find someone else or, better yet, drop dead and let him have a bit of peace.
The next day, Mary’s body is discovered at the bottom of Pye Hall’s staircase, and Robert is the most obvious suspect. Atticus asks if Mrs. Blakiston favored their relationship; Joy says no before admitting to being with Robert the morning Mary died. Joy wants Pünd to clear Robert’s name. If he ruled Mary’s death was an accident, everyone would believe a famous detective. Atticus looks skeptical.
Robert asks Joy how it went when she emerges. She says Pünd won’t take the case; he can’t do anything about gossip. Robert suggests approaching another detective, but Joy doesn’t agree. The young couple vow to get through this together.
Back to the real world, Alan’s sister, Claire Jenkins (Pippa Haywood), has dropped in to beg for her job back (as his secretary, one assumes). Despite the employment arrangement between siblings failing the first time, Claire asks for a second chance. Like a good sister, she expresses concerns about Alan’s lingering cough, but he assures her it’s nothing. She asks after the manuscript; Alan bristles that he typed it up already. When he leaves to take a call from his solicitor, Claire glances through a copy on the coffee table; she discovers her brother has written her into his latest novel as Clarissa Pye, unloved, unmarried, and desperate for cash. When Alan returns, he finds Claire has left without a word. (Did she take the manuscript with her?)
The following day, Susan gripes to Andreas that her copy of the Magpie Murders manuscript is missing the final chapter. In her frustration, she considers calling her boss, but Andreas convinces her to wait until tomorrow and go for a leisurely Sunday stroll. He admits he’s thinking of resigning from his teaching job, and his cousin has suggested joining him in Crete to run a hotel. Susan argues she may be ambivalent about her pending job offer, but she’s not entertaining a move to Greece.
Meanwhile, in Suffolk, Alan’s solicitor, Mr. Khan (Sanjeev Kohli), arrives at his client’s estate. When he doesn’t answer the door, Khan calls Alan and follows the sound of a cell phone ringing to the side of the house. There he finds Conway lying dead in a landscaped garden at the foot of the manor’s tower just as a magpie flies off.
The following day, Susan and Andreas offer each other apologies and agree to discuss their options over dinner. She arrives at work, prepared to deal with the missing chapter problem, only for Charles to call her in and tell her to sit. He tells her about Alan’s death and shows her Conway’s suicide note, which arrived via post that morning. Susan notes the cancer diagnosis and wonders if Alan decided to kill off Pünd because of his health. They also theorize Alan withheld the last chapter on purpose, which throws a rather large wrench in the buyout deal with Citywide.
However, when Conway’s local Police Detective, Locke (Daniel Mays), arrives to speak with Charles and Susan, and Charles hands over the suicide letter, Susan doesn’t seem convinced it’s real. Locke is ready to accept it at face value, but she insists the letter didn’t sound Conway, nor is choosing such a painful way to die. She also points out that the letter’s handwritten, but the envelope is typed. Irritated, Locke thanks them and leaves.
Worried the investors would pull out of the Clover Books acquisition without the complete manuscript, Susan packs to head for Suffolk, hoping to find at least a handwritten draft of the missing chapter. She leaves Andreas a voicemail about her spur-of-the-moment plans and settles into the driver’s seat. But when she looks up, she’s startled to see Atticus Pünd in her rearview mirror.