Book Review: The Magpie Tree by Katherine Stansfield

Book reviews By Mar 22, 2018 4 Comments

Shilly and companion return in The Magpie Tree when a boy goes missing in woods where the landscape shifts around, its people are protected by a saint, and there are rumours of witches.

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.

Another hauntingly beautiful cover heralds the return of Katherine Stansfield’s fledging detectives in the second book in her Cornish Mysteries series, the first of which I reviewed here. I was thrilled to see them back for another instalment and excited to see how their story would develop.

This latest case tests their newly-formed partnership, taking them away from the squire’s house on the treeline and into a strange, twilight world that lies deep within the woods of Trethevy, one which feels claustrophobic and otherworldly. It’s a place where Shilly especially struggles to find a foothold, let alone her bearings and is a world away from the open moorland she’s known all her life.

I loved the way in which Stansfield makes use of the bird population to create and then heighten the sense of a disturbance in the woods, the way they’re used to unnerve the characters and the reader, while also representing something other and lending a supernatural element to the book. This works well in conjunction with the legend of the saint, the seeping damp I could almost feel, and the way in which the ground shifts and paths take a different turn, although not seen as anything untoward by the locals.

The community in the wood was one that interested me with its cluttered bottles and hanging stones, their proximity to the quarry, and how the woods seemed to offer a place of refuge and safety from the wider world beyond them but equally made them suspicious of outsiders and led to strangers seeking solitude becoming the subject of gossip and rumour, making them vulnerable and a potential target or scapegoat.

If you’re looking for a cracking Cornish mystery with great characters, shifting landscapes, witchy going ons and dark, unsettling myths, then The Magpie Tree is for you. I almost felt the woods closing in around me while reading and absolutely loved it. Katherine Stansfield’s new Cornish Mysteries series is developing nicely; it’s dark and menacing, while putting a fresh twist on existing myth and legend from this part of Cornwall, and I’ll look out for the next one with great anticipation.

The Magpie Tree by Katherine Stansfield is published by Allison and Busby. It is available as an ebook, in hardback with the paperback due out in September. You can find it at Amazon UK or buy it from Hive where every purchase helps support your local independent bookshop. The Magpie Tree is the second book in the Cornish Mysteries series.

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. For more information on her and her writing, check out her Author Blog or find her on Twitter

My thanks to the publisher for sending me a copy for review. 



  1. BookerTalk says:

    A detective agency in 1844? That doesn’t sound quite right

    1. kath says:

      It’s not meant in the sense we might understand one today. Rather that they’re acting on behalf of others as their agents or representatives.

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