REVIEW!!! The Crimson Tide by Anna Sayburn Lane

When Helen Oddfellow goes to Canterbury for the opening of an Elizabethan play unseen for 400 years, she is expecting an exciting night. But the performance is disrupted by protests, then a gruesome discovery in the cathedral crypt draws her into a desperate hunt for a murderer.

Is the play cursed? The actors think so, but Helen doesn’t believe in curses. As friends go missing and Helen herself is threatened, she pursues the clues through the ornate tombs of the cathedral and the alleyways of the ancient city.

Mysteries from the distant and not-so-distant past are exposed.

Can Helen find the killer – before he kills again?

Having thoroughly enjoyed Anna Sayburn Lane’s previous two Helen Oddfellow mysteries, Unlawful Things and The Peacock Room, I was delighted to receive a copy of the third book in the series, The Crimson Thread, and to find out what literary mystery Helen has found herself embroiled in this time.

The time has finally come for the lost Elizabethan play that Helen and her investigative partner Richard found in Unlawful Things to be performed. The play is not without controversy – depicting Sir Thomas Becket (also known as Saint Thomas of Canterbury) as an anti-hero, its discovery has rocked some of the more extreme parts of the religious and literary worlds, and the play’s performance has attracted protests.

Going to the opening night performance in Canterbury – the site of Becket’s murder – Helen is expecting to have to defend the play but she is wholly unprepared to stumble upon a corpse in the cathedral crypt, and even less prepared when the body turns out to be connected to an old ally of Helen and Richard’s. Someone, it seems, is determined to stop the performance of the lost play – and to continue to hide Thomas Becket’s last secret. And it soon becomes apparent that they will stop at nothing in pursuit of their aims.

As with Anna Sayburn Lane’s previous Helen Oddfellow mysteries, The Crimson Thread provides a page-turning literary mystery complete with a satisfying and intriguing intellectual puzzle and a trail of literary breadcrumbs for readers to follow as the mystery is revealed.

There are probably more thriller elements in this book than the previous titles – Helen finds herself up against a truly vicious villain who is capable of both psychological and physical violence – meaning that, with The Crimson Thread being a tad shorter than its predecessors (a slender 211 pages), the pace really rattles along, making for a page-turning and compulsive read. I finished it over the course of an afternoon because once I was absorbed in the mystery, I just didn’t want to stop reading!

Helen continues to mature as a character – she’s more sure of herself in this book, and more aware of the risks that she is taking. Whilst it was lovely to see some returning characters, it was also great to be introduced to some new faces – a determined and organised police detective, and a handsome actor (and possible love interest for Helen) being two of my favourites. I wasn’t quite as taken with the subplot of this book – the young choir boy who occasionally acts as a viewpoint character didn’t quite make up for the absence of newspaper reporter Nick Wilson for me – but I appreciated the change of location and the opportunity for Helen to meet new people, revisit old connections, and tie up loose ends from Unlawful Things.

As in Unlawful Things, the antagonists of the novel are brilliantly realised – one of them really made my skin crawl, being a blend of manipulative, deceitful, and outright violent. As I mentioned above, there are some scenes of both psychological and physical abuse in the novel – Sayburn Lane doesn’t shy away from depicting violence on the page when necessary – but, as in her previous books, this felt in-keeping with the characterisation of her villains.

Unlike its predecessor The Peacock Room, The Crimson Thread is a more direct sequel to Unlawful Things, picking up on a number of strands from the first book in the series and with the return of a number of characters from that novel. Whilst the mystery itself is, as with the others in the series, a standalone, I do feel that you’d get more enjoyment out of The Crimson Thread if you read Unlawful Things first – the central mystery of that novel is fairly key to this one, and a number of events and characters are referenced.

Fans of The Da Vinci Code and The Shakespeare Secret who have not yet discovered Helen Oddfellow should definitely be jumping on this series, as should any thriller fan seeking a change of pace from domestic noir. Lovers of literature will also find much to enjoy here – Anna Sayburn Lane has clearly done her research and her clear yet crafted writing really brings her characters and settings to life. Packed with twists, turns, action, and adventure, The Crimson Thread is another thrilling outing for Helen Oddfellow and I can’t wait to see what she might get up to next!

The Crimson Thread by Anna Sayburn Lane is available now from all good booksellers and online retailers including Hive and Waterstones.

If you can, please support a local indie bookshop by ordering from them either in person or online! Some of my favourites include Booka Bookshop, The Big Green BookshopSam Read BooksellersBook-ishScarthin Books, and Berts Books

My thanks go to the author for providing a copy of the book in return for an honest and unbiased review.

Reviews on The Shelf are free, honest, and unbiased and I don’t use affiliate links on my posts. However if you enjoy the blog please consider buying me a coffee on Ko-Fi!

Blog Tours · Reviews

BLOG TOUR REVIEW!!! The Peacock Room by Anna Sayburn Lane

A literary obsession. An angry young man with a gun. And one woman trying to foil his deadly plan.

When Helen Oddfellow starts work as a lecturer in English literature, she’s hoping for a quiet life after the trauma and loss of her recent past. But trouble knows where to find her.

There’s something wrong with her new students. Their unhappiness seems to be linked to their flamboyant former tutor, Professor Petrarch Greenwood, who holds decadent parties in his beautiful Bloomsbury apartment.

When Helen is asked to take over his course on the Romantic poet William Blake, life and art start to show uncomfortable parallels. Disturbing poison pen letters lead down dark paths, until Helen is the only person standing between a lone gunman and a massacre.

As Helen knows only too well, even dead poets can be dangerous.

I was very excited to be invited to be part of the blog tour for The Peacock Room, Anna Sayburn Lane’s follow up to 2018’s Unlawful Things. The first Helen Oddfellow mystery was a surprising hit for me – one of those books that you know you’ll enjoy but don’t expect to like quite as much as you do!

The combination of taut literary mystery and edge-of-your-seat thriller gave me all the thrills of The Da Vinci Code but with the pleasure of more rounded characterisation and a considerably better prose style. Unlawful Things ended up being one of my honorable mentions in my Best Books of 2019 and I have been eagerly awaiting the follow-up ever since.

There’s always a worry when you’ve been anticipating a book that the reality won’t live up to the expectation. Fortunately The Peacock Room is a more than worthy successor to Unlawful Things, offering the same combination of intriguing literary mystery and contemporary conspiracy whilst developing the returning characters nicely.

The mystery this time centres around the philosophical poet William Blake. Returning heroine Helen Oddfellow, still raw from the events of Unlawful Things, is wrenched out of her sixteenth-century comfort zone when she’s asked to take over a first-year class on the Romantic poets at short notice. Turning to an old tour-guiding friend, Barbara Jackson, Helen is soon drawn into the close-knit artistic circles of Blake’s world – and into Barbara’s search for proof that Catherine Blake may have helped in the writing of her husband’s famous poems. But someone else is interested in William Blake – and is using his poetic imagery to justify a violent online misogyny that is threatening to spill over into the real world.

As Helen and Barbara’s investigations progress, the mysteries keep on piling up. What do some missing manuscript pages have to do with an online comic featuring one of Blake’s monstrous creations? How is a centuries old academic puzzle connected to the investigation of online hatred being conducted by Helen’s journalist friend Nick? And what does any of it have to do with Helen’s uhappy poetry students and the flamboyent Professor Greenwood?

Whilst it takes a little while to draw together and develop the various strands of the plot, Anna Sayburn Lane manages to keep the pace high and the twists and revelations coming throughout The Peacock Room. After some scene-setting and introductions at the beginning (ideal for introducing new readers – meaning The Peacock Room can be read perfectly well as a standalone mystery), the slow build of the first third of the book rapidly increases and I rattled through the final 200 pages or so in the space of a few hours!

As with Unlawful Things, some of the plot elements do push the boundaries of plausability – I can attest to the fact that academic life isn’t nearly as thrilling (or, thankfully, as sordid) as this book makes out – there is little that is impossible here (although several that are improbable – if only hidden manuscripts and undiscovered MSS were as easy to find in real life!) and, if realism is sacrificed at times, it is done so in the name of an engaging and enjoyable story.

The Peacock Room does engage with some difficult topics – trigger warnings here for discussions of gaslighting, rape, sexual coersion, sexual violence, grooming, and misogyny – but they are handled sensitively and are always kept relevant to the plot. That there are dark corners of the internet hiding such violent and unsettling interpretations of literature is, sadly, all too true. There were once or two plot strands that I felt wandered a little too close to cliche – guessing Professor Greenwood’s secret wasn’t especially difficult and, whilst I’m sure such things do occur, any modern university would crack down on such behaviour with considerably more force than depicted here however illustrious the academic in question.

These minor niggles aside however, The Peacock Room is a fascinating literary thrill that successfully combines contemporary debates with the thrill of a centuries old mystery to produce an engaging, enjoyable, and edge-of-your-seat read. Deserving of a much wider readership, The Peacock Room is a worthy successor to Unlawful Things – existing fans are sure to enjoy it and I hope it brings many new readers to Anna Sayburn Lane’s action-packed series.

The Peacock Room by Anna Sayburn Lane is available now from all good booksellers and online retailers including Hive, Waterstones and Wordery.

If you can, please support a local indie bookshop by ordering from them either in person or online! Some of my favourites include Booka Bookshop, The Big Green BookshopSam Read BooksellersBook-ishScarthin Books, and Berts Books

My thanks go to the author, Anna Sayburn Lane, for providing a copy of the book in return for an honest and unbiased review, as well as to Anne Cater from Random Things Tours for organising and inviting me onto this blog tour. The blog tour continues until 17 October so do check out the other stops for more reviews and content.

Reviews on The Shelf are free, honest, and unbiased and I don’t use affiliate links on my posts. However if you enjoy the blog please consider buying me a coffee on Ko-Fi!

Blog Tours · Reviews

BLOG TOUR REVIEW!!! Unlawful Things by Anna Sayburn Lane

Unlawful Things Front CoverA 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! 

Unlawful Things Poster