Alan Conway grumbles and grumps his way through the start of a new mystery mini-series. He’s an angry author, ensnared by success.
Conway is fictional, at the core of “Magpie Murder” (shown here),. which debuts at 9 p.m. Sunday (Oct. 16) on PBS – surrounded by more-traditional mysteries: “Miss Scarlet and the Duke” (8 p.m.) is light and bright, “Annika” (10 p.m.) is darker, but both follow the usual pattern of solving a crime each week.
Not “Magpie.” It spends six episodes probing two murders – one of them nowadays, the other in Conway’s novel (set in the ‘50s), which is missing its final chapter.
A key to all of this is the fictional Conway, a crabby, cranky, crusty writer. And no, says Anthony Horowitz, who wrote the mini-series, this is not autobiographic.
Jill Green, the “Magpie” producer, agreed. “You adore writing murder mysteries,” she said to Horowitz (who also happens to be her husband). “You’re brilliant at them.”
By comparison, she said, “Alan Conway is frustrated. He wants to be writing a Salman Rushdie novel. He wants to be writing something else – not fantastically successful murder mysteries.”
They’re so successful that he keeps writing – and hating – them. That happens, Horowitz said.
“Arthur Conan Doyle creates Sherlock Holmes, the greatest detective who ever lived, and dislikes him so much … that he throws him off a waterfall. Ian Fleming creates James Bond and talks about him as being children’s fiction.”
Horowitz said he’s never felt that way. “I love my work …. I love murder-mystery writing.”
And it was a wise career choice. “I was no good at anything else,” he said. “That’s the honest truth. All the teachers at my school told me that.”
It was, he said, “a horrible school. We Brits are very good at sending our children to schools that torment and make your life difficult, and I was in one of the worst of them ….
“I was a very unhappy boy, but books were a lifeline for me. And when I was, I think, 17 years old, for Christmas my father gave me the complete works of Sherlock Holmes. So I knew not only that I was going to be a writer, I was going to be a murder and mystery writer.”
And a prolific one. He’s created three youth-oriented book series – Alex Rider, Diamond Brothers and Gatekeepers. He’s done two novels featuring Holmes, three featuring Bond (using unfinished Fleming material) and four with his own detective, Daniel Hawthorne. He’s written lots of British TV shows, including one (“Foyle’s War”) that had an eight-season run on PBS.
He also wrote the 2016 “Magpie Murders” novel, a tough one to adapt. It is, he points out, “a 650-page book, set in both present day and in the 1950s – in the real world and in fiction.”
Horowitz followed the advice of his wife/producer: Rearrange everything, making Susan – a book editor who doesn’t arrive until the story has gone on for 300 pages – the central character.
He also hatched another quirk: At times, Susan imagines seeing the novel’s fictional detective (shown here), who offers semi-helpful advice. “It’s a really gorgeous thing that she can see him and he can see her, but they can only see each other,” said Lesley Manville, who plays her.
Adds Tim McMullen, who plays the novel’s detective: “He has an understanding of his own place within a fictional genre.”
He’s content with being a fictional detective … Horowitz is content being a real detective-story writer … But Alan Conway merely grumbles about all his unwanted success.