Roush Review: Ladies’ Night on ‘Masterpiece’ With ‘Magpie,’ ‘Annika’ & Return of ‘Miss Scarlet’

Lesley Manville in 'Magpie Murders,' Nicola Walker in 'Annika,' Kate Phillips in 'Miss Scarlet and the Duke'
Review
PBS

Somehow it seems fitting that on a week when we’re mourning the great Angela Lansbury, who for 12 years played one of TV’s most beloved female sleuths (Murder, She Wrote‘s Jessica Fletcher), PBSMasterpiece Mystery! franchise devotes its entire Sunday lineup for the next six weeks to three very different series where women take the leading role in discovering whodunit. Jessica would be so proud.

Magpie Murders

Lesley Manville in 'Magpie Murders'

(Credit: Eleventh Hour Films/Nick Wall/PBS)

A mystery lover’s delight, Magpie Murders is a whodunit wrapped in a whodunit, an homage to the genre’s most revered classics that adds clever twists of its own. Anthony Horowitz (Foyle’s War) adapts his bestselling novel, and if the TV version lacks some of the book’s formal brilliance and literary showmanship, it’s still a superior brainteaser.

“Is there anything more useless than a whodunit without the ending?” barks veteran editor Susan Ryeland (the delightful Lesley Manville) when she discovers the latest manuscript by her most famous mystery writer is missing its final chapter. Worse news, the author soon turns up dead, a suspected — though suspicious — suicide.

Few except the publishing house’s profit-minded investors are mourning the loss of the viciously temperamental Alan Conway (Game of ThronesConleth Hill), who resented his popular success. But Susan takes it upon herself to play amateur snoop and get to the truth. And if she can locate the last pages of his final opus, Magpie Murders, even better.

What ensues are parallel mysteries, with some actors taking on dual roles, as the fictional Magpie (set in the 1950s), a traditional country-house puzzle, comes to life, and we meet Alan’s most enduring creation: Atticus Pünd (Tim McMullan), a sly European sleuth whom even Hercule Poirot might respect. While Susan scours the manuscript for clues, because Alan was notorious for putting caricatures of real people in his stories for petty revenge, she begins having visions of and conversations with Atticus.

These scenes are a bit obvious, but as the cases begin to echo each other, pay attention when Atticus says, “It’s not what is written, it is how it is written.” Horowitz plays with convention beautifully, and it’s hard not to love a show that opens one episode with a scene from seven years earlier as Susan is chiding her writer, “I just don’t think you should start with a flashback.”

Typically, the real world proves less interesting than fiction, and Susan’s career subplot becomes a distraction, when she weighs a promotion to CEO during a corporate takeover against ditching it all to move to Crete. With her lover. Who cooks for her. You don’t have to be a legendary detective to figure this one out. Run, Susan, run!

Annika

Ukweli Roach and Nicola Walker in 'Annika'

(Credit: UKTV/PBS)

When Annika Strandhed speaks in the series that bears her name, you can’t help but listen. That’s partly because this Scottish detective (of Norwegian heritage) has a habit of breaking the fourth wall and addressing the viewer directly, making droll observations — about life, death, mythology and literature, from Moby-Dick to Ibsen — that often pertain to the case.

We also hang on Annika’s every word because she’s played with mischievous bite by the wonderful Nicola Walker (MI-5, Last Tango in Halifax), who originated the role in a BBC radio drama and now returns to Masterpiece Mystery! after a memorable four-season run in Unforgotten. I’d have loved to see Annika work a crime scene alongside Law & Order‘s Lennie Briscoe (the late Jerry Orbach). The two share a dry wit — which in her case is a bit ironic, because Annika is always around water as leader of a newly formed Marine Homicide Unit.

Annika takes her job so seriously it could ruin her strained relationship with sullen daughter Morgan (Silvie Furneaux). On a happier note, she’s smitten with the teen’s clever therapist (Paul McGann). “Give me a pun and I’m anyone’s,” she tells us.

We hear you, Annika.

Miss Scarlet and the Duke

Stuart Martin and Kate Phillips in 'Miss Scarlet and the Duke'

(Credit: Courtesy of Element 8 Entertainment and MASTERPIECE/PBS)

“You’re a what?” “She’s a what?” That’s some greeting Eliza Scarlet (the winning Kate Phillips) gets when she starts nosing around a posh department store in the Season 2 premiere of Miss Scarlet and The Duke. But then, no one said it would be easy for a woman in 1880s’ Victorian London to make her way as a private detective.

The lightest of the three Sunday series is a classic Masterpiece period diversion with a pre-feminist kick, as Eliza struggles to build her business with unsavory cases — when first we see her this season, barging into an unwelcoming gentleman’s club, her dress is spotted with mud, or is it manure? Few want to take her, or her demands for payment, seriously. But she is undaunted. “I will have no master,” she declares to her frenemy, Detective Inspector William “Duke” Wellington (the Hugh Jackman-esque Stuart Martin), into whose investigations she often intrudes, ruffling his gruff composure.

He’s especially irate in the season opener when she plunges into a missing-persons mystery, essentially reopening a case that the Duke’s Scotland Yard office had earlier declared closed. (As is often the case here, her instincts are better than that of the overwhelmed police.) The will-they-or-won’t-they romantic tension between Miss Scarlet and the Duke that comes with this territory is complicated by her ambitions and his career drive, which is further strained by the arrival of a new superintendent and an inept rookie he’s forced to take under his wing.

Eliza Scarlet may be ahead of her time, but she’s perfect for ours.

Miss Scarlet and the Duke, Season Premiere, Sunday, October 16, 8/7c, PBS

Magpie Murders, Series Premiere, Sunday, October 16, 9/8c, PBS

Annika, Series Premiere, Sunday, October 16, 10/9c, PBS