Forty years ago, Steven Smith found a copy of a famous children’s book by disgraced author Edith Twyford, its margins full of strange markings and annotations. Wanting to know more, he took it to his English teacher Miss Iles, not realising the chain of events that he was setting in motion. Miss Iles became convinced that the book was the key to solving a puzzle, and that a message in secret code ran through all Twyford’s novels. Then Miss Iles disappeared on a class field trip, and Steven has no memory of what happened to her.
Now, out of prison after a long stretch, Steven decides to investigate the mystery that has haunted him for decades. Was Miss Iles murdered? Was she deluded? Or was she right about the code? And is it still in use today?
Hallett sprang to attention with her debut The Appeal in 2021, gracing Waterstone’s window displays and Sunday Times’ Crime Book of the Year… and, to be fair, it was a breath of fresh air in its take on the crime genre.
In this novel, her follow up, which she and Viper publishing graciously let me read as an ARC, she returns to the genre and to the ventriloquism she displayed in The Appeal. Rather than a series of emails and electronic messages, her device this time is a series of audio recordings – the premise is that Stevie Smith, recently released from prison and seeking to reunite with his son, has borrowed an old phone from him and that the recordings are for him. Having been put through a voice-to-text service, they are delivered to Stevie’s son complete with spelling errors and phonetic renderings of spoken words (Miss Iles is rendered as missiles) .
Stevie’s narrative is two-fold: on one hand it is the story of how he ended up in prison, and his involvement in criminal gang activities; on the other hand it is his investigation, after his release, into the disappearance of his Remedial English Teacher, Miss Iles decades before. This investigation is the first thrust of the narrative and propels us into a world where mysterious books are left on busses for boys to pick up; where coded messages inside the book reveal secrets; where conspiracy theories blossom like wildfire on the internet along with Nazi spies and incredible plot twists. All contained in the books of a discredited children’s writer, Edith Twyford. The theory is that there is a hidden treasure – variously posited as gold (reasonable) or time travel portals (possibly less plausible) – to which the clues lead. Had Miss Iles been eliminated by sinister forces as she got too close, all those years before? Were those forces still operating and a threat to Smithy now? Can Smithy follow the same clues and uncover the truth of what happened to his beloved teacher?
The novel initially felt a little disjointed to me: the gangland narrative when it came up felt shoe-horned in and an interruption to what felt like the main story; yet Smithy’s history and reasons for his being in prison was relevant to communicate to his estranged son whereas the investigation into Miss Iles’ disappearance was not. The harsh brutality of Smithy’s childhood and family – if we trust his account – and his inculcation into the gang culture felt at odds with the whimsy of the present-day narrative. Never quite dark enough to feel authentic, but bleak enough to jar with the quest for the Twyford Code.
Those strands did weave together however, very satisfyingly towards the end. Just as I was starting to question Smithy’s narration as it became increasingly extreme and stretched my credulity, Hallett gave one heck of a twist to it! I will not reveal any more of, except to say that it did lead to a re-evaluation of all that had gone before and, in hindsight, this was an incredibly carefully structured and clever book and not one detail was left to chance.
And far more importantly, it was a great read! I did miss some of the variety of voices Hallett gave us in The Appeal: the format here obviously centred on Smithy with occasional ‘guest’ voices. However, those guests were lovely, whether they were his former classmates Paul, Donna, Michelle, Nate or the very obliging librarian, Lucy, who helps him with his phone, his housing, his research and becomes embroiled in his quest.
The story does have (very deliberately) a classic feel of Enid Blyton in places: a plucky group of unlikely children – the remedial English class with mental health issue, anxiety, dyslexia – become embroiled in international intrigue and adventure, running about the countryside and finding secret passages… it just needed a dog called Timmy or a parrot called Kiki! And passages from Edith Twyford’s books are cited in the novel with exactly that Blyton-esque language! It was, initially and at a superficial level, a highly enjoyable romp; it twisted into something… else by the end. I’m not sure everyone will like the twist, but it worked for me. Perhaps it will be one of those marmite-things… that you either love or hate!
All in all, this was a fantastic read and a great follow-up to The Appeal – great for readers of Belinda Bauer and Richard Osman – and I look forward to whatever else Hallett writes next.
What I Liked
- The clever, clever plotting and structure of the novel – which only became fully apparent towards the end when you can see the intricacies and some of the questionable moments start to make sense.
- The camaraderie between the RE class: Paul, Donna, Michelle, Nate and Smithy who were treated as the failures and the rejects because they found reading challenging.
- The fantastic pacing of the novel – it really was a page turner!
- The character of Smithy who initially presented himself to us as bumblingly inept, but who may have been anything but that!
What Could Have Been Different
- The interplay between the different narrative strands could have been smoother.
- I found the phonetic speech-to-text format just a little gimmicky.