Depending on who you ask, the wartime children’s books of Edith Twyford are either “an unchallenging read on every level [with n]o subtext [and n]o depth” or they’re “nasty, sadistic, moral little tales full of pompous superiority at best and blatant racism at worst.” Her series based around The Super Six in which “[t]hree girls and three boys…solve mysteries that have been puzzling the local community” has been gradually updated with each successive generation and translation, so that their outdated attitudes can be put aside once and for all. But might something else have been lost along the way? Something people would kill for?
Where Janice Hallett’s debut The Appeal (2021) utilised a multitude of voices to tell a story through email, text message, and other written records, her follow-up The Twyford Code (2022) is mostly told from one perspective: that of ex-con Steven Smith. Presented here as a series of transcripts of audio recordings made on a mobile phone, we’re given plenty of time to get to know Smith as he attempts to connect with an adult son he only just learned exists while also wrapping his own head around a mystery that has baffled him for decades: the vanishing of his secondary school English teacher Miss Isles (or “missiles” as the transcription software interprets it) after a school trip to Dorset to investigate the setting of one of Twyford’s books.
Smith is easily the triumph of this very tricksy book, an essentially simple man trying to fit into a world that, after 11 years in prison, is not the world he knew (“I’d never hit a woman, not even a gender neutral one.”) and so finding a sense of connection to a time even further back (“[W]hen your future’s been torn away, the past suddenly takes on more meaning.”). His frequent divergence into reminiscence of his criminal past plays into this — even if at times it does get a little tedious to hear a story whose details are familiar already and whose end you already know dragged out piecemeal over 300 pages — and the sense of decisions made and bitterly regretted seeps through so that even the connections he has in the present seem tenuous at best. Trying to reconnect with his Remedial English class to unpick the mystery of Miss Isles’ disappearance is difficult enough; facing up to his failures as a father and a person will come at something of a cost.
I found first half of The Twyford Code delightful — full of commentary on kids’ literature from the 1940s:
The kids have I think technically stolen, although it says borrowed, a rowing boat from a fisherman and are camping on an island off the coast of their aunt’s property. Turns out some grunts in the local firm are using this island to stash their contra. I’ve guessed the fisherman’s in on it. He’s taking a kickback to lend the firm his boat and spread rumours the place is haunted to keep folk away. That won’t work. If anything it’ll attract attention.
…and posing an interesting puzzle of what these books could possibly contain that makes them so valuable to the right person. A sort of Da Vinci Code for Kids, there seems to be a great deal of meaning in obscure proclamations (“A fish to open me.”), paintings, photographs, buildings, hidden cellars, and many more clever ideas besides. The sheer preposterous nature of such a code being hidden in the books of a children’s author feels sort of fun, and if you’re willing to accept the central conceit of most of this sort of fiction (one group searching innocently, another with perhaps a darker purpose in mind) you’ll have a great time watching it all play out.
And then at about the halfway point…it stopped being fun. Suddenly it seemed to me that too many cracks were being papered over, and too many convenient gaps were left unfilled: c’mon, even in the 1980s a woman couldn’t just up and vanish from her job and life without the police getting involved, and the notion that two people are responsible for moving as much…of the thing that’s apparently being moved…simply doesn’t wash. The notion, too, that later reprints of the series could have been altered to update the code meant, as I understood it to work, that they’d almost be different books…and surely that wouldn’t simply be shrugged off by the publishers, waning reputation or no. Plus the coincidence of…dammit, it’s hard to critique this without spoiling anything!
If you’ve read the book, you’ll know that some of these issues are addressed in a final section that then just…veers wildly off the rails, and reveals a conspiracy within a conspiracy which is, for me, a step too far. I love the idea of these transcripts and how their existence plays into the final final final reveal — as with The Appeal, Hallett has brilliantly found a perceptive loophole in the technology and exploited it in a very clever way, but my personal take on this is that she’s perhaps over-reached herself in trying to out-trick her very tricksy debut. Wonderful work is done with a much smaller cast this time around, and the sense of people having drifted apart and being pulled back together by something some of them would much rather forget is beautifully captured:
It’s partly something else I can’t quite explain. Like Shell’s eyes as she assured me I were wrong. Like the lines around her mouth. Like her hands and feet and how her body changed shape as she spoke. The tone of her voice and air of relief when I pretended to believe her lie. The way she quickly changed the subject to some light, airy chat about their holiday villa that won’t sell. Too isolated, too basic, needs too much work. Yeah, a big f[EXPLICIT]king problem.
Perhaps I’d be more willing to accept it if told in straight prose, I dunno; the problem with presenting a story in this way is that it requires a lot of revelations to be info-dumped upon you in the way that people simply don’t speak or relate to each other (what I think of as The Bridget Jones’s Diary Effect: no-one writes a diary with direct speech and clear characterisation — and, yes, I know this was a problem before BJD, but I read that one first, and so it was the first book to make it occur to me). There’s also the small matter of the cover promising “the murder of the century” and the book not being a murder mystery in any real sense of the word. There’s one murder (perhaps…) but that’s certainly never the focus of the book — not that this is Hallett’s fault, and “It’s time to investigate the 21st-century Ludlum-esque conspiracy of literature and vexed ambition” isn’t quite as compelling, but the choice by Viper Books to market this as if it’s a traditional murder mystery is a weird one.
And so The Twyford Code strikes me as something of a curate’s egg: Hallett emerges as an author of very fine ideas, with a superb eye for the gaps around the edge of the traditional mystery plot and a deft touch for making you care for her characters and their predicaments. The latter stages of this, however, represent a perhaps too-elaborate attempt to generate surprises, and throws away most of the superb ground of the opening half in order to race to a very complex conclusion that, while certainly unexpected, would perhaps have landed better if it were trying to achieve less. I’ll not fault her ambition, though, and I remain intrigued to see where she goes from here. The Appeal was a wonderful debut, and The Twyford Code assures us that it was no mere fluke.
Kate @ Cross-Examining Crime: 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.
Brad @ Ah, Sweet Mystery: The Twyford Code sucks you in. It makes you see things that aren’t there . . . until you start to realize that yes! They are there, but what on earth does the thing you uncovered mean? I cannot express the excitement I felt on a certain page when a certain passage unearthed its hidden message to me – and then the utter frustration (but a joyful one) when I had no idea what to do with this obvious piece of the puzzle! In that way, Code becomes a much more interactive experience than a mere book! And it’s a potentially dangerous one, as you start to wonder just what sort of rabbit hole you’re falling into, as evidenced by a marvellous scene where a pair of conspiracy theorist/treasure hunters bump into another, older pair who are chasing a completely different conspiracy and treasure.