The Crimson Thread by Anna Sayburn Lane
A play by an Elizabethan dramatist seems to be an innocent and safe enough project for a provincial theatre and attending or being connected with its premiere seems safe enough. In this novel, however, the writer was the turbulent Christopher Marlowe, the saint whose death is written about is Thomas Becket, and disturbing forces are busy in Canterbury, home of the pilgrimages that have taken place over the centuries in his honour. For Helen Oddfellow, credited with discovering the play’s text after its “loss” four hundred years before, this fast paced, tense and well plotted novel tells of her latest literary adventure.
Sayburn Lane rachets up the tension of a book which deals with danger and an awful discovery in the crypt of the cathedral which brings home how desperate certain dark forces are to conceal the truth about a literary secret several hundreds of years in the making. Incorporating actors, long established guardians of secrets, clergy and a surprisingly enterprising young helper, the characters in this book challenge Helen’s past, present and future. The setting, of ancient buildings and secret places in the ancient city, is brilliantly exploited and so well described that it feels like a three-dimensional tour in many ways. Helen is a truly well-established character, with some arcane and academic knowledge which fuels the story, but also a real humanity and experience which makes her feel real. Although not her first outing in the field of literary adventures, her story is well enough explained in this book for it to be read as a standalone novel. I was so pleased to have the opportunity to read and review this outstanding thriller.
The novel opens with an older woman, Alice, being lured into a mysterious meeting in the Chapter House of Canterbury Cathedral. She is a little concerned about it, especially as she is keen to meet her friend William and attend the premiere of the play in the local theatre. Moreover, she encounters Derek, a man described as “furtive” en route, and she has no time to listen to his concerns. Too late she realises that both her and William have been brought for a meeting which is far more threatening than she could have ever imagined, and that a desperate search for a secret is placing them in danger. Meanwhile Helen is tasked with introducing the play to a packed audience, but it seems she is not going to be allowed to explain anything concerning a text about crucial events in local history without dramatic incidents taking place. Her joint discovery in a chapel in the Cathedral early the following morning jolts her into realizing that something powerful is taking place in the small city, and it proves that no one is safe, from the oldest person who may be a keeper of secrets, to a chorister with a strong streak of curiosity.
This is an intelligent thriller which has much to say about old secrets and new dangers. It incorporates personal histories and greater forces which bring their own dangers. From the first revelations of danger through to a thrilling climax, this is a book which is fascinating and gripping. Helen is a wonderful lead character with enough knowledge to be able to slot together clues, but also human enough to be concerned for those who have become involved in a series of dangerous mysteries. There is a lot of research behind this short novel, but it never gets in the way of the exciting narrative. I recommend this book to anyone who enjoys a tense thriller with a literary and historical base firmly set in a place which is worthy of further investigation and maintains the tension until the very end.