Murder, she edited: In PBS' "Magpie Murders," Lesley Manville is a publishing world mystery sleuth

Lesley Manville spoke to reporters about her cool character, busy career and needing more roles for women over 50

By Hanh Nguyen

Senior Editor

Published October 16, 2022 11:00AM (EDT)

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)

Move over, Jessica Fletcher. A new amateur sleuth has arrived, but instead of writing mysteries, she's editing them. 

"If I wasn't an actress, I would be a detective."

In PBS' "Magpie Murders," Lesley Manville plays book editor Susan Ryeland, who becomes embroiled in two mysteries when her top novelist dies under peculiar circumstances. Before his death, author Alan Conway (Conleth Hill) turned in the manuscript of his final novel . . . except it's missing the last chapter that reveals the killer. Susan believes that finding that chapter is the key to answering questions about Alan's death.

At the recent Television Critics Association press tour, Manville claimed that she's not too shabby at ferreting out information herself. 

"I am excellent. If I wasn't an actress, I would be a detective because I would make a brilliant one," she told reporters. "I've had ex-boyfriends who still don't know how I found out stuff about them, and honestly, they'll never know how I found out. I'm a brilliant detective."

"Magpie Murders" is the six-part series based on Anthony Horowitz's best-selling novel, which he also adapted for PBS' "Masterpiece," making major structural changes to liven up the television-viewing experience. Originally, Horowitz told the story in two chunks, starting inside Alan Conway's novel, a 1950s-set mystery in which the fictional detective Atticus Pünd solves the murder of a wealthy land owner. Only when that story ends without being solved, does Horowitz switch to Susan Ryeland's real-world point of view as she tries to ascertain Alan's state of mind before his death while also seeking the missing chapter.

Essentially, it's one full mystery followed by another, creating quite a bit of whiplash. That also means that Susan Ryeland's character isn't really introduced until halfway through the original novel, an unacceptable use of the character once Manville was cast in the series. Instead, PBS' adaptation weaves together both stories, shifting from present-day to the 1950s fiction story and back again. Each mystery mirrors events in the other story, with actors playing dual roles, a different version of a character in each timeline. 

Horowitz credits producer Jill Green for her advice to "bring Susan Ryeland right up front, because in the book she doesn't appear for 300 pages. If you have a talent such as Lesley here, you do not leave her until Episode 4." These changes allow the viewers to follow along with Susan as she reads Alan's book and notices the parallels and clues to his real life.

While Susan Ryeland is approximately the same age as "Murder, She Wrote" protagonist Jessica Fletcher and is in the same business, that's where the similarities end. No sleepy coastal towns for Susan; she's a Londoner who's always on the go, jet-setting around the world for book conferences. When we first meet her, she blithely rebuffs the offer of a German publisher who's interested in acquiring Alan Conway's translation rights.

"That's one of the things I love about Susan, is she doesn't have to explain herself," said Manville. "She's taking absolutely no truck from anybody, and it was just wonderful playing the scenes when she just kind of cuts these men off absolutely brilliantly with her language and her skills."

There's nothing stuffy or staid about Susan. She approaches her own life with a similar take-charge attitude, knowing her own worth. She drives around in a shiny red MGB convertible, wears stylish scarves and print dresses paired with motorcycle jackets, and is reluctant to give all that up for her Greek boyfriend Andreas (Alexandros Logothetis) when he tires of teaching in London.

Magpie MurdersAlexandros Logothetis as Andreas Patakis and Lesley Manville as Susan Ryeland in "Magpie Murders" (PBS/Eleventh Hour Films/ Nick Wall)"She's chosen not to get married," Manville said. "She's chosen not to have children. She's got a nice boyfriend who she sees when she wants to see, and she still drives an open-top sports car. She's absolutely not conforming to anything."

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When Susan begins to investigate Alan Conway's home and question the residents in his sleepy town, she finds what was initially seen as Alan's suicide may have been a murder. From the suspicious neighbors to a dismissive police chief, few people are willing to help Susan and worse, most seem to have had motives to kill Alan.

Susan can't seem to make any headway, and finds inspiration in the most unlikely source: Atticus Pünd (Tim McMullan). It's not just that Susan thinks Alan's book detective is smart at stringing together clues. Susan actually begins to see and talk to Atticus when he starts to show up in her world. Whether it's her imagination or a side effect of too much gin, Atticus becomes a source of insight into the mind of Alan.

"It's a very dramatic, excellent device," Manville said. "She knows the way to solve the crime is through the book, and the key person in the book is Atticus. In a way they become one mind. They become this glue of two – well, she's not a detective, but she's a publisher, but she's got these detective antennae on the go." 

Manville seems to be all over our TVs at the moment. Fresh from starring on the big screen in "Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris," Manville can currently be seen in Britbox's crime drama "Sherwood," inspired by real-life murders in Nottinghamshire, England. And soon, she's take up the mantle of Princess Margaret when Netflix's "The Crown" returns this fall.

"You can still be quite exciting even though you're over 50, oddly enough."

The actor doesn't find that these characters have much in common with each other, which is precisely why she enjoys them. Manville also addressed her career for the Television Critics Association panel for Britbox's "Sherwood."

"There isn't a through line, you see? That's what's great," she said. "What gets me up in the morning is that I can play Susan Ryeland, and then I can play Princess Margaret, and then I can play Ada Harris, and they're all different ends of the social spectrum.

Magpie MurdersLesley Manville as Susan Ryeland in "Magpie Murders" (PBS/Eleventh Hour Films/ Nick Wall)"If you can throw in a corset one week and not a corset the next, then that kind of makes it a little bit more interesting. Frankly, you can leave the corsets for me. I don't like wearing them but if somebody pays me enough, I'll put one on."

Manville appreciates the opportunities, seeing as women over 50 playing such a variety of roles used to be a rare occurrence.

"It's gotten better very slowly, and there's still an awful long way to go," said Manville. "If you don't represent a huge section of society and you don't represent them in an interesting way – women over 50, over 60 that are not just being appendages. They can be wives and mothers, but they need to  be telling their own story. . . . Women of my age want to go and see things that are sometimes about women of my age who are doing interesting things. I also want to see things about interesting 30-year-olds, but I want to see my sex and my age group represented fairly."

In the meantime, Susan Ryeland is living her best life. 

"[She] defies all the kind of stereotypical notions that people might have of how somebody of her age should act and conduct their life," said Manville. "I just love her. I'm so glad that Anthony didn't write her as a sort of 20-, 30-year-old something. It's just so great that she's got all this gravitas and experience and that she's just not conforming. It's terrific. We need to see more women on film across the board that represent women in that way, because you can still be quite exciting even though you're over 50, oddly enough."  

"Magpie Murders" premieres Sunday, Oct. 16 at 9 p.m. on PBS. 


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.

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Anthony Horowitz Lesley Manville Magpie Murders Masterpiece Murder Mystery Pbs Tv