The Magpie Tree by Katherine Stansfield

Review published on June 13, 2018.

Jamaica Inn, Cornwall, 1844: The talk in the bar is of witchcraft, murder and intrigue. A young boy, Paul Haskell, has disappeared from the nearby hamlet of Trethevy and local scuttlebutt has it that he has been magicked away by two recent arrivals, sisters and “furriners” to boot, who have been seen walking in the wood and conversing with the devil. The local squire, Sir Vivian Orton, has offered a reward for the boy’s return and, implicitly at least, the removal of the two suspected women from the locality.

Visiting the inn that night and keenly interested in the talk of a reward, are Anna Drake (as she currently wishes to be known) and her somewhat reluctant companion Shilly, who are still reeling from the events described in Falling Creatures, Katherine Stansfield’s previous novel. Anna wants to open a detective agency (her inability to join the ranks of Scotland Yard still rankles) and she feels that securing the reward money represents her best chance to do so. She therefore convinces a decidedly sceptical Shilly that they need to travel to Trethevy and offer their services as investigators, thereby practically guaranteeing that they become embroiled in yet more nefarious and dangerous doings.

The Magpie Tree is a spookily atmospheric historical crime novel. In addition to the disappearance of Paul Haskell and the presence of the two apparently sinister sisters, Shilly and Anna have to contend with the oppressive nature of the wood surrounding Trethevy, paths and landmarks that appear to move at will, the suspicious and superstitious local population, a surfeit of seemingly malevolent birds, a sacred tree and the local legend of Saint Nectan, the one-time protector of children, who is said to have been buried alive decades ago by two foreign nuns. All this results in a highly complex and frequently perilous investigation during which it becomes increasing difficult to differentiate between reality and fantasy.

As for Shilly and Anna, they are a very interesting, if very different, pair. Shilly wants to be with Anna, although how much that desire is due to having nowhere else to go is not exactly clear, but she isn’t so keen on becoming a detective. Anna is the more rational and headstrong member of the partnership (she’s also the most intriguing, if least pleasant, one of the two), but she doesn’t have Shilly’s (perhaps alcohol-fuelled) insight into either people or matters that stray from the mundane. There are allusions throughout The Magpie Tree to the events of Falling Creatures, events that are never fully explained in this second book, so while it can certainly be read as a standalone novel, reading the first book would likely serve to flesh out the characters a bit more and help to explain both their motivation and their actions.

The Magpie Tree is extremely rich in historical detail, with both the setting and the characters ringing true of the period. An air of supernatural menace hangs over the wood, one that perhaps only Shilly really appreciates, and the events surrounding the disappearance of Paul Haskell have a decidedly otherworldly feel about them. That said, real crimes are committed and Shilly and Anna thus have to track down real criminals, however dangerous they may be and whatever their feelings about the paranormal aspects of the case are. The Magpie Tree is a haunting tale well told, and it’s sure to be a big hit with fans of historical, unusual, crime fiction.

Erin Britton 4/4

The Magpie Tree by Katherine Stansfield
Allison & Busby 9780749021719 hbk Mar 2018

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