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.
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 Bookshop, Sam Read Booksellers, Book-ish, Scarthin 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.
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