Janice Hallett topped charts last year with her debut, The Appeal, a thriller about a murder in the sleepy town of Lower Lockwood told entirely in a mix of texts, emails and documents. Hallett’s second novel, The Twyford Code, is innovative in a different way: it is a transcription of 200 audio files that have been found on the iPhone 4 of missing ex-convict Steven Smith.
Steven, the reader discovers, has recently been released after more than a decade in prison. Rejected by the son who never knew him, lonely and at a loose end, he becomes increasingly obsessed with how his former teacher Miss Iles vanished while on a class field trip 40 years earlier and decides to investigate. The audio files are his record of the inquiry, as he looks up the former friends who were with him on that long-ago outing to the coast and digs into Miss Iles’s own obsessions. She believed that Edith Twyford, a “twee and much-maligned children’s author” who is a shameless (and brilliant) pastiche of Enid Blyton, put coded secrets in her books during the second world war, and was investigating this when she disappeared. Steven becomes equally fixated, working with a helpful librarian, Lucy, to decipher a code in Twyford’s books, which he comes to believe will lead to hidden treasure.
Twyford is despised by modern readers for her “nasty, sadistic, moral little tales full of pompous superiority at best and blatant racism at worst”, and Hallett has a great deal of fun with the snippets of her stories she provides: “Never mind adventure, young Rose. There’s bread to bake, jam to make, the cow to milk, beds to strip and the kitchen garden to rake. You will be too busy to play with your brothers and shouldn’t be so selfish as to think otherwise. Girl children are to follow instructions.” She has even more fun with the codes that Steven – and the reader – set out to crack. And watching Steven, an ex-con, describe what is basically the plot of the Famous Five is a genuine joy: “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” – so far, so Kirrin Island. But then, as Steven so aptly puts it: “Turns out some grunts in the local firm are using this island to stash their contra.”
The Twyford Code is a tour de force – a genuinely complex puzzle with real clues to be solved, all told in the unreliable voice of a protagonist with a heartbreaking history of his own. “I’m just an old man in an old car talking into his son’s old phone,” says Steven, who has learned to read while incarcerated, discovering that the prison librarian’s trolley is “stacked with treasure waiting to be found”. The transcription tool used on the audio files sometimes gets it wrong, and helpfully blanks out any swear words, so “must have” becomes “mustard”, Bournemouth becomes “bore moth”, and events become “pretty f[EXPLICIT] lairy”. This is pretty f[EXPLICIT] brilliant itself – a mind-bending, heartwarming mystery that is not to be missed.