Book Review: The Twyford Code by Janice Hallett – a new puzzle from an inventive mystery writer

I was impressed by Hallett’s debut novel, The Appeal, which was written in text messages, emails and similar correspondence – an epistolary novel for our time. More interestingly it invited the reader to solve the mystery and figure out whodunit. And now Hallett’s done it again with her second book, The Twyford Code, only this time the story is written for the most part in transcripts of audio files from a phone.

Steven Smith has just been released from prison after a lengthy stretch for a crime that is not revealed until towards the end. We learn he was a career criminal, working for an established family of crims. They’d looked after him when he was teenager, feeding him, clothing him and showing him the trade. He’d dropped out of school at fourteen after something went terribly wrong on a school trip involving the disappearance of a favourite teacher, Miss Isles. Steven can’t help blaming himself.

Nearly forty years ago, Steven found a book on a bus travelling to school, and showed Miss Isles, who read it to the class. These are the kids who are in reading recovery, the ones with dyslexia and other learning difficulties, but Miss Isles knows how to inspire them. The book with echoes of Enid Blyton’s Famous Five stories, is written by Edith Twyford, much discredited in recent years, her books a tad racist and paternalistic for modern times. But the story captivates the class and Miss Isles who says there are clues in the book to missing gold secreted away during World War II. Twyford and her husband were spies and Steven’s book is full of code-like annotations. Can Miss Isles and the class solve the puzzle?

Steven is hazy about what happened on the school trip to Twynford’s cottage, and the disappearance of his teacher. So he tracks down his classmates in the hope of filling in the gaps. The audio files are his way of documenting his findings – he is hampered by his limited literacy – and they are addressed to Maxine, his probation officer. The technology captures his way of speaking exactly, his London accent, so that Miss Isles becomes ‘missiles’; must have translates to ‘mustard’ and so on. In a way this takes a bit of getting used to, but it also adds personality.

Among the recorded dialogue, the diary entries, and so on there’s still plenty of action. It seems danger lurks and where there’s gold there’s always someone who will do anything to get it. We are slowly filled in on Steven’s past, his criminal history and his family. But mostly this is a clever and engaging mystery. You get caught up in trying to figure out what is real and what’s just Steven’s imagination – he’s a classic unreliable narrator, worldly-wise in some ways, naive in others.

The Twyford Code is a brilliantly planned and executed puzzle, but I did at times tire of Steven’s company. This is perhaps a limitation of telling the story in this way. I also struggled to keep all the facts straight, but perhaps I wasn’t meant to. The twists and revelations make for a clever and appealing ending, enough to save the book for me. I’m giving it a four out of five while wondering whatever will Janice Hallett think of next?

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