Review: The Magpie Tree by Katherine Stansfield

“Two paths led from the house. One back to the road, and so to the sea and light and room to breathe and think. The other to the trees, and so to their watching, their waiting.”

Although quite easily enjoyed as a standalone novel, The Magpie Tree is the second book in Katherine Stansfield’s ‘Cornish Mysteries’ series, following on from 2017’s Falling Creatures. Set in Stansfield’s native Cornwall in the 1840s, the series follows an unorthodox pair of detectives named Anna and Shilly: the former a private investigator spurned by Scotland Yard’s male-dominated detective branch, and the latter an illiterate farmhand with a gift for seeing the supernatural hidden from normal view. Driven by Anna, the pair hope to establish a detective agency and The Magpie Tree represents their second case: a young boy’s disappearance from a village buried deep in a woodland with a mind of its own. The primary suspects are a pair of visitors to the shifting woods from Germany, two women who in many ways mirror the series’ protagonists. The villagers are quick to cast suspicion on the ‘furriners’, believing that they are in league with the Devil and have spirited the boy away. Anna and Shilly are employed in this open-and-shut case, but fear that these outsiders may be convenient scapegoats for malevolent forces much closer to home.

As a gothic novel set in Cornwall, The Magpie Tree was never going to escape comparisons with Daphne du Maurier. Unsurprisingly, the marketing department of Allison & Busby celebrates this connection, including a jacket quote that suggests Stansfield shares du Maurier’s talent for finely-crafted storytelling. What is interesting, however, is the way in which Stansfield herself embraces this inextricable link. There are playful nods to some of du Maurier’s best-loved works throughout The Magpie Tree – amongst them the setting of Jamaica Inn in the novel’s opening chapter, which is quickly followed by the introduction of a sour-faced housekeeper who may yet prove to be Danvers in disguise. The most significant of these homages, both in terms of imagery and narrative importance, are Shilly’s encounters with large gatherings of sharp-eyed, seemingly-vengeful birds:

“…it wasn’t natural to see so many birds in one place. I wondered if it was a sign of something, something bad…They shuffled on the branches, barely room for them to perch and stare at me with their eyes that gleamed even though there was so little light.”

There may be an element of knowing that any resistance to comparison would be in vain, but it seems more likely that The Magpie Tree’s salutes to du Maurier are born from Stansfield’s great affection for her – a theory all but confirmed in the Author’s Note at the novel’s end. But Stansfield’s cross-referencing doesn’t end with du Maurier. As the narrative unfolds, the book jacket’s claim that this author has a talent for finely-crafted storytelling rings true, and subtle literary references are part of The Magpie Tree’s charm. As soon as they learn his name, readers familiar with the nursery rhyme ‘Two Little Dickie Birds’ may fear for the missing boy’s twin brother. And later, in a novel focused upon a hunt for witches, we have a character named Proctor accused. The Magpie Tree’s collecting of these references may itself be seen as a nod to the ‘thieving magpie’, a myth that still pervades European folklore.

However, putting its literary layers aside, The Magpie Tree is still a pageturner worthy of the crime series genre it places itself in. Early fears for a predictable twist fall away sharply as the story progresses, with the focus of Anna, Shilly and the reader frequently switching between suspects. For its first two-thirds The Magpie Tree is more detective fiction than gothic horror, but Shilly’s first sighting of the cloaked kidnapper signifies a change as the novel moves into its final third, and from thereon in readers with a love of the macabre will find themselves more haunted. Stansfield’s habit of ending short chapters on pseudo-crises is thankfully only seen in the first fifty pages or so, and in this final third the cliffhanger device is used to much greater effect.

“ I came level with the summer house I walked into a great terror of sound. The saint was ringing his bell for all he was worth. So loud it made me want to shut my eyes, as if that would ease it, but the saint wanted me to see. He stopped my eyes from closing.”

The sound of the ringing bell in the woods is just one point of contention between Anna and Shilly. Anna, fully committed to scepticism, dismisses it as the blast bell of the nearby quarry – its ringing at crucial points purely coincidental. Shilly maintains that it is the work of the long-dead St. Nectan, offering a guiding light through the woods’ ancient hatred. As the novel’s narrator, we are aligned to Shilly regardless of any scepticism we might hold in the real world, and Anna’s constant belittling of her is infuriating. In a standalone story, you might hope that such emotional abuse is escaped from by the final page, but Shilly seems tied to Anna for at least a few novels more. The pair’s confused relationship, swinging wildly between business and pleasure, gives this series an intriguing subplot and some readers will no doubt return for this alone. But, for all of its well-crafted human characters, it is perhaps the setting of the shifting woodland that is the most compelling aspect of The Magpie Tree. Closely based upon the real location of St. Nectan’s Glen in north Cornwall, the novel’s version is a claustrophobic place, one that Shilly believes is experiencing an echo of evil across the ages:

“I could feel, still, the hatred that stirred in the trees, that made the very ground they grew from change its being….It’s the hate that has come back, found bodies to carry it.”

In the Author’s Note at the novel’s end, Stansfield briefly covers the local myths that inspired The Magpie Tree, motivating not just further reading but lengthy scrolling through online images of St. Nectan’s Glen, Trethevy, Boscastle and the other Cornish locations mentioned. The Magpie Tree is a novel so rich in detail that it is a wrench to leave its world behind. Thankfully, the cases for this unorthodox pair of detectives keep coming, with a third book in the Cornish Mysteries series – The Mermaid’s Call – published at the end of 2019. Hopefully many more will follow.

The Magpie Tree is available from Allison & Busby.

Rhys Owain Williams is assistant editor of The Ghastling.

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