As voracious a reader as I have been since the age of six, I didn’t pick up a book by Enid Blyton until my fifties, when I discovered her fifteen-book series about The Five Find-Outers, privileged children who, from 1943 to 1961, spent each school holiday solving mysteries and calling their leader “Fatty.” My British friends might think this odd, since Blyton wrote something like 73,472 books during her forty-two-year long career. She was the James Patterson of children’s novelists, only better because she didn’t need a stable of “co-writers” to do her dirty work (and because each of her books has about 157 fewer chapters in them.)
Blyton was also as stuck in her time as it gets, accused of elitism and called out for her sexist, racist, and xenophobic attitudes; even worse, by the 1950’s parents and librarians denounced her work as thematically unchallenging and lacking in literary merit. This may explain why I never found her books in my local libraries.
Despite all this, it was Enid Blyton who immediately came to my mind as I started reading The Twyford Code, the second novel by Janice Hallett, whose 2021 debut The Appeal was easily one of my favorite reads from last year. And when I got to the afterword Hallett includes at the end of the book, I was pleased to see I hadn’t been imagining things:
“As for Edith Twyford, I must thank everyone who enabled the cultural cancellation of her real–world inspiration. Because it’s thanks to Enid Blyton falling out of favor that I discovered reading. If no one had sent their Famous Five books to the 3rd Northolt Scout jumble sales of the 1970s, I would never have picked them up and taken them back to a home with no other books in it – and you would not be holding this one now.”
The goings-on of a long-famous yet much maligned children’s author figures prominently in The Twyford Code, which is as much about the joys – and perils – of reading, the whack-a-doodle world of conspiracy theorists, and the sociological implications of poverty in late 20th century England as it has to do with crime and punishment and a decades-long hunt for treasure and/or secrets and/or the truth.
But let me pause to address the elephants-can-remember in the room: on the cover of this novel is a quote from a Sunday Times review: “A modern Agatha Christie.” Here is where I would normally insert my rant about such execrable shorthand on the part of journalists and publishers as a tool to influence readers to buy a book. My argument this time is a bit different: Janice Hallett is not a modern Agatha Christie; rather, she’s . . . . Janice Hallett herself. Her take on the mystery genre is her own and, judging by her first two novels, it’s a fine take indeed.
The one thing common trait with Christie that springs to my mind is that both authors debuted with a “traditional” whodunnit and then, in their second effort, veered into different territory. That makes writing a review of The Twyford Code especially challenging because the nature of this particular mystery is ever shifting and expanding. Much of the joy of reading the book is making your own discoveries as you go along.
What I will tell you is the following:
First: the main character of the novel is a middle-aged ex-con named Steven Smith whose possession of a book by novelist Edith Twyford – the first in one of her series of mysteries about not the Five Find-Outers but The Super Six – leads him on a hunt for . . . what? Treasure? A national conspiracy? Perhaps his heart’s desire?? Since the book is as much about the nature of the hunt and the truth about what lies at the end of it, I’ll leave it there.
What I will say is that Steven is a fascinating character whom you will be intrigued by and find yourself rooting for, even as his narrative reveals ever darker layers from the troubled life he has led. Nearly all the characters here possess hidden depths, causing our perspective to constantly shift and refocus. And, as much as this book is a complex mystery, it also becomes a disquisition on language itself and, as her afterward states, on the life-saving properties of reading. I’m sure a lot of us, addled by a world besieged by pandemic-related hysteria, have grasped this truth many times over the past two years.
Second: once again Hallett has found a fascinating way to tell her story. This time, the narrative is revealed through a series of two hundred audio files that have been recovered from the iPhone of a missing person. And just like in The Appeal, which was related in the form of hundreds of e-mails, personal texts, and announcements, the author chooses her style with purpose. The transcription of the files requires some work from the reader, for reasons that will become increasingly apparent as you proceed – just as it will become clear by the end that the work was well worth it.
Finally: like the conspiracies it espouses, 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. That’s where I started to think of Q-Anon, how like a ridiculous children’s story it is, and how childlike its believers. What, I wonder, would happen if these bored, stupid people put down the conspiracy and tried reading a book – especially a book like this one!
I’m going to have to wait a whole year for Hallett’s next book, The Mysterious Case of the Alperton Angels. One can assume from this title that the author will continue her exploration of our favorite genre, although I wouldn’t put it past her to offer yet another entirely different take on the mystery. For now, The Twyford Code is further proof of Hallett’s wondrous ability to tell original stories, making us excited to pick up the latest work by a talented, original author.
And so, my dear journalists and publishers, drop the Christie comparisons, please . . . . Janice Hallett doesn’t need them.