The Crimson Thread by Anna Sayburn Lane – An 800 year old murder, a 400 year old play – but fresh discoveries mean present danger for Helen Oddfellow

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.   

The Peacock Room by Anna Sayburn Lane – a contemporary thriller with a literary basis

The Peacock Room by Anna Sayburn Lane

Literature can be a dangerous thing, at least in the life of English literature lecturer Helen Oddfellow in this, her second literary appearance. In this exciting and tense novel with much to say about the exploitation of young women, William Blake’s poetry and illustrations provide the inspiration for much of the action. Not that this is a dry book of literary history; this is a contemporary thriller which goes further than “woman in peril” and maintains a fierce pace. The settings, in a university, in the streets where Blake lived, in well known museums and libraries, tries to evoke not only the contemporary danger to various people, but also give a glimpse of the artist and his contemporaries. This is a fast moving book full of incident and interest, informative about Blake and others, and condemning how certain men have a negative concept of women. I found the writing vivid and engaging, and Helen a very human protagonist who has doubts and feels emotions as well as trying to solve mysteries. The way this story builds up, but with plenty of incidents en route, is so well constructed as to be difficult to put down. I was so pleased to have the opportunity to read and review this memorable book.

The Prologue sets an important theme of the book; a man preparing by practicing with a gun, his thoughts depicted as determined and aggressive. Helen is shown in the first chapter as waking alone, contacted by a friend Nick, and suggesting that they meet in Crispin’s flat, an older man who welcomes visitors. As he reveals disturbing drawings, Nick mentions Rintrah, one of Blake’s subjects who is a disturbing influence. He points out that one of the most knowledgeable people of the subject is Professor Pentrarch Greenwood, a person Helen has to encounter as she has to take over his tutor group for a while. Not that she is keen on this assignment, as her knowledge of Blake is limited. She calls on a Blake expert, Barbara, to recommend books and things she must quickly absorb in order to teach effectively. Helen soon discovers that it is not so much the volume of knowledge that she possesses about Blake which is important, as much as her relationship with the five students in the group, who seem to be curiously vulnerable or brashly self confident. The various characters in the novel interact and discover more about what is truly going on in a series of events which tests everyone. 

This is a novel which, like its predecessor “Unlawful Things”, combines literary investigation with tense action and drama. I enjoy the setting of the various events in this novel, even though some of the situations are disturbing. The characters are memorable in their reality and their emotions as well as their sudden bursts of understanding. Helen is an excellent main protagonist as she struggles with her own guilt, sadness and regret, but she is also inspired, brave and clever and dealing with the extraordinary situation she finds herself in throughout this novel. It is difficult to review a thriller without giving too much away , but I recommend this book as an extremely well written novel with many layers of interest.

I really enjoyed this book, and learnt a lot about William Blake and his contemporaries, just as I learnt a lot about Christopher Marlowe from this author’s first book. It is certainly a great way to learnt literary history!

Unlawful Things by Anna Sayburn Lane – A thriller based on a historical hunt for the truth

A thriller with an academic twist, this is a unique book dominated by some serious historical research, both as part of the plot and the knowledge that was needed to create it. Sayburn Lane has created a trail of academic discovery which gives a real challenge to the characters to discover a radical explanation for a contemporary obsession, against a very real danger to today’s British society. With some brutal episodes, this is not merely an intellectual puzzle; real danger and violence follow the main characters as some seek to profit from fear of the different. I soon realised that this is a fascinating and compelling book which held my interest throughout a dense plot, and I was very grateful to receive a copy to read and review.

The book opens with a narrative of a stabbing attack in Deptford, and the realisation that it is an ironic place to be stabbed. The action then goes back by two weeks, to show Helen Oddfellow, leader of historical walking tours in London, Phd student and friend of Crispin, a retired actor with a past. She is contacted by Richard, who has unearthed a reference to the playwright Kit Marlowe, and has seen an article in a local paper which mentions Helen as a Marlowe expert. Younger and more interesting than she had expected, she joins in his research to clear the name of an ancestor of the Cobham family, visiting the archives of Dulwich College and the Parker library at Corpus Christi College in Cambridge. Their investigations do seem to be getting close to a dangerous discovery however, and there are threats. Meanwhile a young reporter called Nick who wrote the original article about Helen witnesses an attack on a new mosque by a far right group. He is injured, and soon realises that this is but the tip of a very dangerous anti Muslim force. As he investigates, he too finds himself in some danger, and he overlaps with the hunt for Marlowe references. This is not a gentle academic tiff; there are some fairly brutal scenes and some violent and sudden twists as the two investigations become more complex.

This is a book which I read quickly, as I was so keen to find out what happened next. I found the historical research fascinating, but can see that it may be a little confusing for someone not so interested in Elizabethan politics. Having said that, the author is very competent at anchoring the plot in the sort of twenty first century politics that means that certain groups in society struggle. There are some points at which the narrative gets very convoluted, but the character of Helen grounds it well in a sort of bewildered yet determined way. This is a densely written book, full of incidental details of a contemporary London that seems real. I really enjoyed this book, found the characters well drawn and generally fascinating, and was very intrigued by the puzzle at the heart of the book. I recommend it to those who like their thrillers based in a detailed story with some elegant twists and turns, some of which are shocking and memorable.


Last night we had a Pancake Party in honour of Shrove Tuesday, the last day before the beginning of Lent. Many scrumptious pancakes were consumed, people came along and enjoyed meeting old and new friends, and a good time was had by all. Then straight into a choir practice! It’s a great life provided you don’t weaken! We are now looking forward to another day in London, and are trying to find things to do. Having been to Persephone Books a few weeks ago, I am fighting the urge to look out other lovely bookshops, but finding time to read my haul is a little tricky if I am honest…