Book Review: The Magpie Tree by Katherine Stansfield

The Magpie Tree CoverAbout the Book

Jamaica Inn, 1844: the talk is of witches. A boy has vanished in the woods of Trethevy on the North Cornish coast, and a reward is offered for his return.

Shilly has had enough of such dark doings, but her new companion, the woman who calls herself Anna Drake, insists they investigate. Anna wants to open a detective agency, and the reward would fund it. They soon learn of a mysterious pair of strangers who have likely taken the boy, and of Saint Nectan who, legend has it, kept safe the people of the woods. As Shilly and Anna seek the missing child, the case takes another turn – murder.

Something is stirring in the woods and old sins have come home to roost.

Format: Hardcover, ebook (320 pp.)    Publisher: Allison & Busby
Published: 22nd March 2018                  Genre: Historical Fiction, Historical Mystery

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My Review

The book’s compelling opening line, ‘The day I went to Jamaica Inn was the day I saw a man hanged’, brought to mind Daphne du Maurier and the opening lines of her novel, My Cousin Rachel: ‘They used to hang men at Four Turnings in the old days.’    Indeed, in the first paragraphs of the book, the author inserts plenty of enticing nuggets of information and clues about what may have occurred in the previous book in the series, Falling Creatures.  As a reader, I was at once intrigued and curious to learn more about the characters I was meeting and what their experiences had been up until now.

And what interesting characters are our two protagonists: Shilly, and the woman who calls herself Anna.  There are hints of some sort of tragedy in Shilly’s past, which in part explains her weakness for alcohol to try to keep the demons at bay.  Shilly is sensitive to those forces that can’t be explained by science, seeing visions that at times provide valuable information.  Or perhaps they’re nothing more than the manifestations of over-indulgence.  Anna is the complete opposite – although they do say opposites attract, don’t they?  She’s practical, preferring factual explanations for seemingly strange events over belief in superstition or magic.  Shilly recognises this difference between them: ‘On the moor, in the woods, wherever we were in Cornwall, there were things she couldn’t make sense of.  Things she needed me for.’  However, just like Shilly, there are elements of Anna’s previous life that are a mystery also.  Together Anna and Shilly make an unconventional and engaging crime detecting partnership.  However, it’s a partnership in which Anna definitely wears the trousers (and often not just metaphorically).

Shilly and Anna learn of the reward being offered by landowner, Sir Vivian Orton for information about a missing local boy and, since they are in need of funds and Anna is keen to further her ambition of becoming a detective, they travel to Trethevy to begin their investigation.    Suspicion has fallen on two women new to the area, ‘furriners’ believed by the locals to be involved in witchcraft and to have spirited the boy away.  I’m not going to say anything more about the plot but leave you to discover it for yourself.  However, eventually Shilly and Anna do uncover the solution to the mystery but not before sins of the past have been revealed and a kind of retribution has taken place.

There is some gorgeously sensual writing and I also loved the inclusion of fragments of Cornish dialect.  The author injects an air of mystery and the supernatural into the story that provides an extra dimension.  For example, the spooky magpie tree of the title, considered by some of the locals to be sacred, that has shades of Daphne du Maurier’s ‘The Birds’.  There is also a sense of the forces of nature at work, such as the forest that seems to shift in order to help, hinder, confuse, hide or reveal.    The book also engages with the notion of difference, with the two women suspected of involvement in the disappearance being regarded with suspicion and becoming convenient scapegoats largely because they are ‘furriners’.

I loved The Magpie Tree.  It ticked all the boxes for me as a historical mystery: intriguing story line, interesting and engaging central characters, great period detail and atmospheric location.   Immediately I turned the final page, I added the previous book in the series, Falling Creatures, to my wish-list and I’ll be eagerly awaiting news of the next book in the series.   Click here to read Katherine’s guest post, ‘Sequels: looking back or looking forward?’ published on my blog recently.

The Magpie TreeI received a review copy courtesy of publishers, Allison & Busby, in return for an honest and unbiased review.  (Can I just say that, as far as I’m concerned, Allison & Busby are hitting it out of the park when it comes to my kind of historical fiction novel lately.)

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In three words: Atmospheric, intriguing, mysterious

Try something similar…The Wicked Cometh by Laura Carlin (click here to read my review)

About the Author

Katherine Stansfield is a novelist and poet whose debut novel, The Visitor, won the Holyer an Gof Fiction Award.  She grew up in the wilds of Bodmin Moor in Cornwall and lived on the west coast of Wales for many years.

Katherine Stansfield
Photo credit: Keith Morris

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