Like many I was a big fan of Hallett’s first book, The Appeal (2021), so I have been eagerly awaiting her second publication, which is released on the 13th January.
‘It’s time to solve the murder of the century… Forty years ago, Steven Smith found a copy of a famous children’s book by disgraced author Edith Twyford, its margins full of strange markings and annotations. Wanting to know more, he took it to his English teacher Miss Iles, not realising the chain of events that he was setting in motion. Miss Iles became convinced that the book was the key to solving a puzzle, and that a message in secret code ran through all Twyford’s novels. Then Miss Iles disappeared on a class field trip, and Steven has no memory of what happened to her. Now, out of prison after a long stretch, Steven decides to investigate the mystery that has haunted him for decades. Was Miss Iles murdered? Was she deluded? Or was she right about the code? And is it still in use today? Desperate to recover his memories and find out what really happened to Miss Iles, Steven revisits the people and places of his childhood. But it soon becomes clear that Edith Twyford wasn’t just a writer of forgotten children’s stories. The Twyford Code has great power, and he isn’t the only one trying to solve it…’
In the last couple of months, I have read more than one book which would count as a bibliomystery. It is a subgenre I find I am particularly enjoying at the moment. So it was pleasing to discover that Hallett’s second offering also falls into this category and I think she brought a creative approach to it. Books are used as evidence in the mystery and not only do they potentially provide secret codes, but texts become repurposed to provide clues in a different way. I liked how the physicality of these texts contrast with the modernness of the way Hallett’s story is composed entirely of audio file transcripts. As with The Appeal, the writer includes many small details which add to the authentic feel to the narrative being audio files. They look and read differently. I also appreciate how Hallett does not just use this unusual typography as a mere novelty but ensures that it delivers an engaging reading experience. For example, the initial audio files between the inspector and a professor are effectively deployed to tantalise the reader and throughout the story the audio files are a good way of creating obfuscation, as they can conceal as much as they reveal about a character or situation. Furthermore, the audio file transcripts enable the protagonist to relay past events to the reader whilst commenting on present moment circumstances which hint at what might have gone on. This leads to periods of heightened tension and give the reader a palpable sense of danger.
Knowing how clever Hallett was in her first book at pulling the wool over my eyes, I did start this book thinking to myself: ‘I must remember to not accept anything as true, without really thinking about it first!’ Hallett’s style of mystery writing encourages you to keep asking questions about what is seemingly going on or being said and I think with her books I more actively sleuth. You keep asking yourself, ‘Why am I being told this?’ Nevertheless, despite my timely reminder to myself I did trip up a couple of times with her second novel. Not that I minded too much, as it is nice to avoid some red herrings, but be fooled by others. It is all part of the fun!
If you have read the blurb above you will know that the protagonist is interested in a code which might be in some of the children’s books Edith Twyford wrote. Twyford is a “disgraced” author who was particularly prolific during the 40s and 50s and had a Super Six series. The reasons given for the author’s books being viewed negatively in the present day of the story is that her books were criticised for being simplistic and for including many “isms”. Now you don’t need to be Sherlock to twig that this figure in the story echoes the real-life writer Enid Blyton. I felt Hallett’s appropriation of this real person was well-done. She continues to include notes of authenticity such as basing the titles of the stories Edith Twyford wrote on titles Blyton really did publish. For example, Twyford’s Six on Goldtop Hill sounds similar to Blyton’s title Blyton’s Five Go to Billycock Hill. Moreover, Hallett’s novel does not use her book reductively to bash Blyton’s work and has a full gamut of responses to Twyford’s stories voiced by the characters. For instance, Miss Iles explains at one point why she is reading one of Twyford’s books to the class, despite it being deemed inappropriate by the school: ‘Everyone in this room is clever enough to understand that this book belongs to another world. A different time and place […] the past is a foreign country, They do things differently there.’ I felt moments like this showed a more nuanced handling of the shadows which overcast Blyton’s novels, whilst not for a minute condoning any problematic language those books contain.
One of the questions some readers might be pondering is how similar or different The Twyford Code is, to The Appeal and a natural follow-on question might be is it better? So I thought I would conclude my review with my opinions on these two matters.
To begin with the first question, I would say Hallett does a really good job of showing she is not a one trick pony or only capable of writing one type of story. The use of audio files, the completely different milieu and plot trajectory attest to this. I mentioned earlier in my review that The Twyford Code is part bibliomystery, but as the plot progresses, I think it develops more into a cold case thriller with an adventure/treasure hunt story feel. In some respects, with the code angle and the potential for conspiracies, it reminded me of those escape room experiences you can participate in online, with the need to look things up. Although I say it has a treasure hunt like quality, I would say it is a pretty dark one at that. This change in tone from The Appeal is not a negative, I should add, and the plotting on this one remains tight. It is impressive that Hallett is able to combine so many different styles yet retain control of what is going on.
However, for me, it was not as good as The Appeal, despite these many positives. A reoccurring question I had whilst reading The Twyford Code was: Is the reader given the same level of opportunity to figure out what is going on as in the first book? And looking back at the book I don’t think we are. The audio file transcripts provide less detail at times than the emails do in The Appeal and some of the clues which are there are harder to retain. If you are a whizz at solving or spotting codes then you might have an easier job, but if you are like me then you might find it harder to hold on to the detailed code related information over the 300+ pages. The clues which were people or narrative arc based I was able to pick up on, but the code aspect did give me a bit of a headache at points. I also got the growing feeling in this book that to an extent the narrative has to keep telling you rather than showing you stuff, due to the nature of the narrative threads the book runs with. This contrasted with The Appeal where less specialist knowledge was required, and you were better able to work stuff out independently. In addition, there were times when I felt the pace slowed down too much and I wondered if this loss of momentum was due to the dominance of one voice in the audio files. The first third of the book felt the strongest for me.
One thing I definitely missed from The Appeal, which is not present in The Twyford Code, were the two characters who act as additional “readers”. In The Appeal there are lawyers who are examining the email evidence and we get to read their conclusions as we make our way through the book. Conversely, we don’t get this in The Twyford Code and at the end when there are audio file transcripts of messages between the Inspector and the Professor, I can see why we don’t, but I am not sure the payoff is sufficient. Moreover, the Professor dominates this section, making it a one-sided conversation. Again, there is a reasonable reason for this, but it means that this character has a lot of pulling together to do and in one particular audio file transcript this feels quite forced and clunky, again with this character having to tell us a lot of new information.
I think there will be a lot of different opinions on the ending or the fallout of what has gone and whether certain structural or narrative choices have paid off enough for the reader and I really look forward to finding out what everyone else thinks about this title. Furthermore, I remain enthusiastic for Hallett’s next book, as I think she is taking the modern mystery novel in new and exciting directions.
Source: Review Copy (Viper via Netgalley)