Magnus Mills’ latest is, like the best of his novels, ever so slightly out of kilter with the world as we know it. Set in the ancient Empire of Greater Fallowfields, we are – from the reading of the royal register that opens proceedings – kneedeep in a peculiar bureaucracy. Our narrator, the Principal Composer to the Imperial Court, sits quietly alongside the likes of the Chancellor of the Exchequer, the Postmaster General, the Comptroller of the Admiralty, the Surveyor of the Imperial Works and the Pellitory-of-the-Wall, amongst others, as they give ‘His Exalted Highness, the Majestic Emperor of the Realms, Dominions, Colonies and Commonwealth of Greater Fallowfields’ fifteen minutes to show. It doesn’t give too much away to know that ‘His Exalted Highness’ does not make an appearance within the pages of A Cruel Bird Came to the Nest and Looked In.
What follows is, by and large, an extended coming to terms with: our Principal Composer (who strangely doesn’t have a great deal of experience) comes to terms with the expectations and frustrations of his new role (ranging from the fact that his stipend of six pence cannot be spent in either the local pub or the local sweet shop to the scant little his role actually demands of him when he discovers he has a genuine musical prodigy amongst the serfs that constitute his orchestra). As with many Magnus Mills’ novels previously, there is the sense that there is more going on than our narrator can comprehend (people look at him funny, he gazes blankly back and wonders what he is missing, conversations stop when he enters the room etc). Similarly, the comedy although harder edged than previously is not of the kind that you can quote out of context – Mills’ humour builds up slowly like a hilarious pile of sand.
The book that A Cruel Bird Came to the Nest and Looked In most reminded me of was Kasuo Ishiguro’s grossly under-rated The Unconsoled (still my favourite Ishiguro novel by some way) although Mills’ readers are less likely to be surprised by the dead ends and wrong turns and never to be explored narrative alleyways than Ishiguro’s audience. Whilst it isn’t quite on a par with the incomparable trio of The Restraint of Beasts, All Quiet on the Orient Express and Three to See the King (for the simple reason that the ‘bird’, when it arrives, is nowhere near ‘cruel’ enough and the modernity Mills uses to clash with the earlier rural segment of the book passes too quickly), it is a definite step up following the relative disappointment of both The Maintenance of Headway and Screwtop Thompson.
Any Cop?: A Cruel Bird Came to the Nest and Looked In is guaranteed to satisfy Mills’ legion of fans.