A hidden masterpiece. A deadly secret buried for 500 years. And one woman determined to uncover the truth.
When Helen Oddfellow meets a historian on the trail of a lost manuscript, she’s intrigued by the mystery – and the man. But what starts as a literary puzzle quickly becomes a quest with deadly consequences.
A man runs through a Deptford churchyard, blood pouring between his fingers. Collapsing into a nearby pub, he manages to whisper a few final words: “Cut is the branch…”
And with that dramatic opening, Anna Sayburn Lane’s debut thriller Unlawful Things grabbed me by the hand and didn’t let up until I’d turned the final page a mere 24 breathless reading hours later!
Combining a literary historical mystery with the pacing of a contemporary thriller, Unlawful Things sees PhD student and Christopher Marlowe expert Helen Oddfellow team up with historian Richard Watson and local newspaper reporter Nick Wilson to unravel a 500-year-old mystery.
As Helen and Richard work together to uncover the links between a lost Marlowe play, Sir Thomas Becket and a distant Cobham ancestor, Nick is investigating a group of far-right white nationalists hellbent on destroying a local mosque. But why is their leader so interested in Helen and Richard’s research? Whatever secrets are hiding amongst the papers of Cobham Hall, someone is desperate to keep them hidden – and is prepared to kill to make sure of it. Soon, Helen, Richard and Nick are running for their lives, determined to stay one step ahead of their pursuers and solve the mystery behind Marlowe’s last, lost play.
The plot is undoubtedly similar to that of The Da Vinci Code and The Shakespeare Secret but I have to say that I enjoyed the journey offered by Unlawful Things considerably more. The literary mystery elements are really well-handled, with a trail of tantalising breadcrumbs drip-fed through the plot to make a neat intellectual puzzle that is clearly the result of substantial research into Marlowe, Becket and the fraught political scene of Elizabethan England. This historical mystery is then confidently embedded into a twenty-first-century narrative that is packed with intrigue, danger and edge-of-your-seat intensity.
The characters are well-rounded and interesting, although I have to admit to getting frustrated with Helen at times. For an intelligent woman, it was frustrating to see her fall into some obvious cliches (such as continually failing to tell anyone where she’s going, even when the danger is ever-present), or making irrational emotional decisions (such as contaminating an active crime scene). She is by no means an unpleasant lead – for the most part, she’s witty, clever and extremely determined – but this only made her occasional naivety seem more unlikely to me.
The villains, on the other hand, are brilliantly, terrifyingly realised. From the insane religious mania of one character to the out and out torture inflicted by another, Sayburn Lane doesn’t shy away from violence when necessary and there are a few difficult scenes in Unlawful Things. This never felt unnecessary, however, and the sometimes brutal nature of the violence felt completely in-keeping with the characterisation of the villains.
Overall, Unlawful Things was a really enjoyable reading experience. With its fast pace and complex, interweaving investigations, it really does deserve to be called a page-turner! This is definitely a thriller that has some meat on its bones – Sayburn Lane’s clear yet crafted writing really brings each action-packed scene to life, whilst the densely plotted historical mystery means there’s plenty packed into the pages. Perfect for thriller fans looking to move away from domestic noir, Unlawful Things is a book filled with shocking twists, elegant turns and plenty of memorable moments.
Unlawful Things by Anna Sayburn Lane is available now in paperback and ebook from Hive, Waterstones, and Amazon. My thanks go to the author for providing me with a copy of the book in return for an honest and unbiased review, and to Anne Cater from Random Things Tours for inviting me to take part in this blog tour. The blog tour continues until 13 March 2019 so please do check out the other stops along the way for further reviews, extracts and more!