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Literary sleuth Helen Oddfellow has started her new job as a lecturer in an English Literature department of the university and is hoping for a quiet life. What she gets is anything but. When she is asked to cover a module for Professor Petrarch Greenwood she expected the students to be a little underwhelmed. He is something of a literary celebrity, having followed his lifelong love of William Blake into TV opportunities and book deals. Yet his students behaviour seems strange to Helen. They are subdued and one is genuinely emotional about him, which rings alarm bells to Helen. Petrarch is flamboyant, holds swish parties at his London flat and has very little time for new feminist theories regarding his hero. On the dark web, a strange literary obsession is being used to stir unrest in its largely male following, and an underground police officer is trying to break into the online community by sharing a love of Blake. Their focus is a an artist who produces a graphic novel based on a Blake character, with a disrespectful and violent attitude towards women. How many of his followers even know or understand Blake? As this unrest grows will Helen be able to come between the innocent and a disturbed gunman bent on making his point with bloodshed?
This is one of those times when I really didn’t need to have read the first novel to enjoy this second instalment in the Helen Oddfellow series. The start was slow but I was intrigued with the larger than life and potentially dangerous Petrarch Greenwood. He’s clearly living a rather decadent lifestyle of bedding young students, and stretching his professional ethics. Officially Helen is covering his classes as he has a book deadline to meet, but we get the sense that really he’s being removed to cover up a scandal. The university can’t afford to lose him as he’s their celebrity professor but they also can’t be seen to do nothing. I sensed a really unpleasant character underneath the charm and wondered if he or his assistant was behind the Blake website.
Running through the book is the treatment of women, from the misogyny on the dark web to gender politics within the university. Helen recounts her own reading on Blake and his wife. The question of how involved his wife was in his work is one that’s been at the forefront of feminist theory, something Professor Greenwood is very dismissive about. He’s dismissive about women in general, in fact one is being physically dismissed from his office when we meet him. The behaviour of the female students in his class is worrying too, some are very subdued and don’t want to meet Helen’s eyes. There’s an unpleasant atmosphere, and an undercurrent that I feared didn’t bode well for some of these women. The story started to focus around the events of Professor Greenwood’s party and this is where the book gripped me.
I’m clearly very dark, because when the truth of the party was revealed I was pleased the author had pushed the story to such a disturbing place. It was a great contrast to the tamer beginning of the book and I think it needed it. I didn’t manage to guess all that had happened so I was able to enjoy all the twists and turns to the end. I enjoyed guessing who had the talent and knowledge to be behind the artwork, but the mind to plan such a terrible act of mass murder. However, this wasn’t the only person with secrets and it seemed only Helen was who she professed to be. She is like the calm centre to the novel, but everything around her felt chaotic and changeable. I worried early on that this would be a novel where women were victims, but actually the ending was quite empowering. The women took control, which was a great way to end. I would have liked to know more about some of the characters so maybe some differing perspectives on events would have been interesting. However, I think it was deliciously dark and turned a light on the type of misogyny that seems to be a constant undercurrent on the internet these days. This was intelligent, surprising and as a literary mystery, quite unique.
Meet The Author
Anna Sayburn Lane is a novelist, short story writer and storyteller, inspired by the history and contemporary life of London. Her first two novels introduce the literary sleuth Helen Oddfellow.
Anna shares Helen’s love of literature – mysteries surrounding the Elizabethan playwright Christopher Marlowe and the Romantic poet William Blake feature in the books. She’s pleased her History and English Literature degree finally came in handy!
Anna has published award-winning short stories in magazines including Mslexia, Scribble and One Eye Grey.