Belial. Behemoth. Beelzebub. Asmodeus. Satanas. Lucifer. The Antichrist has had many names in many cultures, and taken many forms, such as 18 years ago when a young woman gave birth to the Prince of Darkness. Thankfully, she was identified by a small group of angels who had taken human form and who knew that the baby had to be killed during a particular cosmic alignment in order to stop it simply being reborn over and over. What happened to that young woman, and to the angels who saved her, has been the subject of intense speculation ever since, and now true crime writer Amanda Bailey is going to dig into the case of the Alperton Angels and get to the bottom of all the nonsense. Because it was all nonsense. Right?
I’m not a fan of pull quotes from popular authors on the covers of books — it often feels like a big, circular game of back-scratching — but when Ian Moore says that “[Janice] Hallett is playing a different ball game to the rest of us” it is, honestly, hard to disagree. Hallett’s debut was the very intriguing The Appeal (2021), which told a tale of, among other things, small town murder via WhatsApp messages, emails, and other written communications, and misled probably 90% of the people who read it, myself happily included. Her follow-up, The Twyford Code (2022), told a story through transcripts of audio files and, for all its extended scope, was slightly less successful but no less ingenious, and now her third novel The Mysterious Case of the Alperton Angels (2023) merges the two approaches and might just be the most ambitious thing done in the genre for a number of years, revolving around the increasingly real possibility that Satan has come to Earth and is killing off everyone who might get in the way of whatever plans are in store for hellfire, damnation, and a generally less than favourable time for the human race.
What’s so impressive about Hallett’s telling is how this obviously-ludicrous premise — Amanda Bailey’s initial interest is in a sensation-grabbing new title for a true crime imprint — becomes increasingly likely as the story slowly but never-less-than-compellingly begins to fill in the various aspects of the case through beautifully-weighted vignettes. The history of the Alperton Angels, the cult-like triumvirate who took in two teenagers and their baby, is understood in Hallett’s universe, and the details are introduced intelligently without too much “as you know…” lumpy exposition and, crucially, with plenty of wry humour, not least in the commentary supplied by Ellie Cooper as she transcribes Bailey’s interviews:
AF: When we stopped at traffic lights, I looked over my shoulder, said what a sweet little thing [the baby] was, and ‘look at the peaceful expression on its face’. [A pause here, either she’s having trouble remembering or the memory is a difficult one. EC] I can see that look in her eyes now, all this time later. ‘It isn’t peaceful,’ she said, ‘it’s evil. It’ll destroy the world, and no one can stop it.’ [Bet this cop needed a coffee and doughnut after that. EC]
Bailey is a pleasingly flawed protagonist, shamelessly pilfering ideas from those she contacts — I love how she just starts using someone else’s title as the title of her book without so much as a backward glance — and allowing the frustration of the search for the baby, if it is still alive, to get to her as the pressure and mystery around the possible adoption of the Antichrist begins to build (one section entitled “Text messages I should never have sent to Mr. Blue when a got home” see her let rip with drunken, frustrated invective). She’s at her best, though, when the reader is forced to squint between the lines to figure out what she’s gone through — that first meeting with Mr. Blue, say — even if the attempts to humanise her with some tragic backstory felt a little too…icky for this reader. Hallett has a wonderful way with making her protagonists sympathetic without having to drop into such cheap manipulation, and Bailey in another triumph of a very well-rounded, and very flawed, presence to rally behind.
Plus, c’mon, “It’s basically Jane Austen with avocado on toast” is a superb line. How can you not love a character who comes out with stuff like that?
Gradually entering into an uneasy collaboration with Oliver Menzies — and that Hallett just lets the “Mingis” joke sit is a chef’s kiss of characterisation — another author writing a different book on the same subject, given that 18 years since the child’s birth makes a suitable anniversary for public interest, Bailey must confront all manner of complications including faulty memory, hidden records, coercive control, and the small matter of plenty of people dropping dead just as she reaches out to them for information. It will not be a surprise to learn that there are some fairly classic misdirection principles at play here — Hallett has adopted this style of telling for a reason, after all, and those of us who have been reading along with her career are wise to some of her tricks now — and that the trail gets ever-more complex with all manner of media dragged across the scent to pull the unwary, or perhaps the unsaved, away from what’s really happening. Has anyone else adopted these principles so well into such clever writing in recent years? This really does feel like an entirely separate game to what other modern authors are doing, not least given my recent experiences.
It’s not perfect, of course — I could have done without the excerpts from YA novels, which add very little, and the point at which four pages of a script vanish for no reason other than to spring a surprise 100 pages later is…frustrating — but it’s very intelligently written, plays wonderfully with your perception of events, and reveals at the end a brilliant and superbly-imbricated series of plots which come together in ways that are increasingly surprising and make, in the world of angels and demons that you’ve been slowly indoctrinated into for 400 pages, a staggering amount of sense. The moral quandary promised on the first page and delivered on the last is a humdinger, too, showing how carefully-woven this tapestry is and leaving the reader with a genuine-feeling dilemma as well as much to think on about the nature of evil.
So, mystery fans, consider yourselves very lucky that you’re living in an era when you get to experience the intelligence, creativity, and clear-sighed acumen that Janice Hallett is bringing to your favourite genre. I know the Agatha Christie comparisons frustrate many of us, because Hallett is writing very un-Christie mysteries and so it reeks of effusive, brainless promotion-speak, but for the clever way she is able to pick her way through a well-trodden genre and bring something fresh, surprising, and so, so engaging into the library I feel like the comparison isn’t, for once, inaccurate. Years from now, she might have the most compelling mystery oeuvre of any author currently working in the genre — no means feat and something that deserves your support. So I’d advise getting on this now; the end of the world has never been so inviting.
4 thoughts on “#1040: The Mysterious Case of the Alperton Angels (2023) by Janice Hallett”
I did really enjoy THE APPEAL but not read TWYFORD (though I know the area a bit). The premise doesn’t immediately appeal I’ll be honest – and I am curious go see what happens when the author gets off this Wilkie Collins epistolary kick. But if you like it then, what they hey, I’m getting it!
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The nice thing about Hallett is that she hasn’t written a series, so you can skip Twyford and go to Alperton, which I also enjoyed more. However, the next book seems to be a sequel to The Appeal, which really excites me.
Yes, The Christmas Appeal — sounds more like a novella though, no?
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It says right on the inside flap of TMAotAA that her next novel will be . . . THE EXAMINER, to be published in 2024.
Oh, that saucy wench! She got me! Will this turn out to be 60 pages of pudding and crackers?!?