Magpie Lane, by Lucy Atkins, hits all the Oxford mystery buttons

Magpie Lane, scene of Lucy Atkins' atmospheric novel of the same name. Picture: Shutterstock
Magpie Lane, scene of Lucy Atkins' atmospheric novel of the same name. Picture: Shutterstock
  • Magpie Lane, by Lucy Atkins. Quercus. $32.95.

Lucy Atkins, an Oxford graduate and an award-winning British author and journalist, hits all the Oxford mystery buttons in her latest novel, Magpie Lane.

Nick Law, a former senior BBC executive, accompanied by young second wife Mariah, has been appointed as the new head of an Oxford college to shake up the governing body and to restore the college finances through fundraising.

Atkins has said, "I'm really interested in that shift from the world of the old don to the new media savvy brought in to whip things into shape, because Oxford University is an institution, and within that there is that peculiar British mix of status, elitism and power".

Atkins' novel is perfect timing in the wake of the recent "scheming spires" dispute at Christ Church College, Oxford between the dean and the governing body.

An Oxford college is a perfect closed environment for mystery and murder, just as the country house was for Agatha Christie in the golden age of crime fiction.This era saw the Oxford classics, An Oxford Tragedy (1933) by J. C. Masterman , Provost of Worcester College and later Vice-Chancellor of Oxford University, and Dorothy L. Sayers' Gaudy Night (1935), featuring her popular characters Lord Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane.

The tradition of donnish detectives continued in the 1940's in the novels of Edmund Crispin, the pseudonym of Bruce Montgomery, featuring the eccentric Professor Gervase Fen. Philip Larkin was the inspiration in The Moving Toyshop (1946) for the poet discovering a dead body in an Oxford toyshop.

Atkins makes numerous references to the Bodleian Library in Magpie Lane, where this reviewer worked from 1967-1976. The then Bodley's librarian was particularly fond of Operation Pax (1951) by Michael Innes, the pseudonym of J.I.M. Stewart, whose plotline culminates in the New Bodleian underground stacks and tunnels.

By the 1960s, however, the donnish amateur had been replaced by the professionals, exemplified by Colin Dexter's Inspector Morse. I bought, in Oxford in 1975, the first edition of the first Morse novel, Last Bus to Woodstock by Colin Dexter. I gave it to Oxfam on leaving for Canberra in 1976, an unwise move as copies are currently selling for well over $2000.

Morse appeared pretty much fully formed in Last Bus to Woodstock with his beer, the Times crossword and listening to Wagner, although perhaps more misogynistic in the novels than John Thaw's character in the TV series.

Before he died in 2017, Colin Dexter continued to be involved with the Morse franchise, acting as an adviser on both the long-running Lewis and Endeavour series. Morse and Lewis, unlike Endeavour, reflect the physical golden Oxford, which played well for global TV audiences.

Atkins, like Dexter, knows her Oxford. "I wanted to include the massive weight of history hanging over Oxford and its subterranean and hidden spaces - the graveyards full of people who shaped literature and history," she says. Magpie Lane, full of dark history itself, runs south from the High to Merton Street, where Atkins Master's Lodging is located.

Magpie Lane opens with the disappearance of Felicity, the eight-year-old daughter of Nick Law and his first wife Ana, who died in mysterious circumstances four years previously.

The narrative is told retrospectively by Felicity's Scottish nanny Dee, who previously worked for academic "transients, many of whom are burdened by inconvenient offspring".

Felicity is an inconvenient offspring for Mariah, Nick's glamorous young Danish wife. Mariah, "the Head of House's spouse", is pregnant, and unable to empathise with Felicity, who has been selectively mute since her mother died four years ago.

Nick and Mariah quickly alienate the college Fellows, "to whom the very notion of celebrity was an abomination", while Mariah's drastic renovation of the Master's Lodging also arouses controversy.

Dee notes that after the BBC, Nick "could hardly be a stranger to overeducated employees, budgetary crises and Machiavellian egos". Atkins has said, "I talked to College Masters and their wives in Oxford and Cambridge, who will remain nameless, but told me stories which were too incredible to print - stuff that makes your toes curl."

Dee reflects in the book's first paragraph, "Felicity is missing. The whole country is looking for her." The police investigation into Felicity's disappearance will centre on Nick, Mariah and Dee and their relationship over seven months.

Felicity is a haunted child in a house which has ghosts of its own, as revealed by the Lodging's eccentric historian, Linklater. As Dee gradually wins the confidence of Felicity and Linklater, all three reveal secrets from their pasts. Atkins' cleverly structured, slow-drip release of information ensures that the explanation of what happened to Felicity only comes in the last pages.

Magpie Lane, while decidedly within the Oxford cerebral mystery tradition, is ultimately an atmospheric and engrossing psychological novel about family and loss and love.