Book Review: The Gift of the Magpie by Donna Andrews
By Janet WebbOctober 26, 2020
Meg Langslow, the eponymous heroine of Donna Andrew’s long-running series, embodies Lucille Ball’s old chestnut, “If you want something done, ask a busy person to do it.” Meg runs Caerphilly’s Helping Hands for the Holidays project, a program where neighbors help each other with things they can’t do or can’t afford to have done. With Christmas only a few days away, even can-do Meg is dubious when her friend Caroline suggests the Helping Hands group deliver manure to fertilize an elderly woman’s rose garden. Caroline senses Meg’s reticence.
“And that’s not a good thing?” She must have picked up on my tone.
“It’s a wonderful thing,” I said. “But this is absolutely the wrong time of year to be doing it. Everybody’s calendars are already bursting at the seams, and the weather hasn’t exactly been helpful.”
As it happens, the challenges of a manure drop pale in the face of uncluttering Harvey the Hoarder. Harvey Dunlop is under siege from avaricious relatives and critical neighbors. His front yard is an eyesore and based on the reports of the few folks who’ve gained admittance to his run-down home, it’s a hoarder’s paradise. Hence his nickname. The subject of hoarding is perennially popular. There are three television shows on the topic: Clean House, A&E’s Hoarders, and Hoarding: Buried Alive.
Meg sits down with Harvey and cuts to chase, telling him she understands why he wants to be the person organizing his belongs but for a variety of reasons he hasn’t been getting that organizing done. She reminds him of the forces arrayed against him.
“Are trying to get me committed.” He nodded. “Oh, don’t try to deny it—Adult Protective Services is the foot in the door that leads to the looney bin.”
I wasn’t going to argue with him.
“Then there’s the most urgent problem of all,” I went on. “This house is about to fall down around your ears. A good lawyer could keep your neighbors and relatives and the county at bay for a good long time, but you need to do something to put this place back together again.”
As if to emphasize my words, a small piece of plaster fell out of the ceiling and landed in Mr. Dunlop’s teacup. He fished it out matter-of-factly and took a sip. Then he closed his eyes and nodded slightly.
Help is on the way in the shape of Helping Hands for the Holidays. Are you thinking this smacks of a nanny state, “interfering unduly with personal choice?” Au contraire. Meg’s volunteers will not be throwing out a single item, rather they will pack up Harvey’s belongings and temporarily move them to the currently vacant Caerphilly Furniture World building. Harvey is welcome to sleep there, surrounded by his possessions, while Helping Hands repairs his house. All goes well, the volunteers work like demons all day, and everyone celebrates that night with a spontaneous gathering at Furniture World. Harvey returns to his house for the last time and disaster strikes. Meg comes by Harvey’s home late in the evening, to check on a feral cat, and finds Harvey’s limp body in the garage. The same garage that had recently been burgled.
Was there any truth to the rumor that he had something valuable hidden beneath all his junk? Was one of his friends, neighbors, or relatives greedy enough to murder him for the rumored treasure?
American history is at the core of the mystery, specifically the failure of U.S. banks after the Depression and FDR’s edict that everyone turn over their gold in exchange for paper currency. Back in the day, Harvey’s family owned a local bank. Local lore, feuds, and legends underpin the mystery of who attacked a harmless hoarder.
The Gift of the Magpie is an enjoyable mixture of timeless tropes and modern ways. Timeless: gardening, Christmas festivities, watching out for neighbors, greed (relatives), noisiness (neighbors), quilting, and carpentry. Modern: computer searches, chat rooms, and using social media as a platform for animal adoption. Meg’s army of teenage volunteers ricochet between the task at hand and checking their mobiles.
There’s a soupçon of fantasy too. Meg’s teenage twins are obsessed with choosing the perfect Christmas present for their family and friends, straining credulity a teensy bit. There are fabulous meals at the drop of a hat, mostly of the smorgasbord everyone-bring-something variety. The Christmas decorations are practically at a professional level. But perhaps that’s just what we need, a heartwarming vision of a magical Christmas rather than a focus on the mayhem of the holidays.
The Gift of the Magpie is the 28th Meg Langslow mystery! It’s my first visit to Caerphilly, Virginia but I had no problem picking up the strands of the continuing stories. I intend to check out some of the earlier stories, particularly ones with a Christmas theme like How The Finch Stole Christmas!
I wondered what was behind the title. According to European folk tales, “it is widely believed that magpies have a compulsive urge to steal sparkly things for their nests,” although reality may not back up that assumption. Nevertheless, Harvey the Hoarder is an indiscriminate magpie, unwilling and possibly unable to part with anything in his past. His travails are described with understanding and empathy and the juxtaposition of hoarding and the holidays make for a novel Christmas mystery.