Everyone knows the sad story of the Alperton Angels: the cult who brainwashed a teenage girl and convinced her that her newborn baby was the anti-Christ. Believing they had a divine mission to kill the infant, they were only stopped when the girl came to her senses and called the police. The Angels committed suicide rather than stand trial, while mother and baby disappeared into the care system.
Nearly two decades later, true-crime author Amanda Bailey is writing a book on the Angels. The Alperton baby has turned eighteen and can finally be interviewed; if Amanda can find them, it will be the true-crime scoop of the year, and will save her flagging career. But rival author Oliver Menzies is just as smart, better connected, and is also on the baby’s trail.
As Amanda and Oliver are forced to collaborate, they realise that what everyone thinks they know about the Angels is wrong. The truth is something much darker and stranger than they’d ever imagined. And the story of the Alperton Angels is far from over.
Another slippery little thriller with everything you would expect from Janice Hallett: an epistolary format using messages, emails, transcripts and, here, extracts from fictionalised accounts of events; vivid characters brought to life through their own (unreliable) voices, a twisty plot. A great, fun read to see the new year in with.
What I Liked
- The epistolary format: Hallett is excellent at giving different characters different voices.
- The slow reveal of the events of the angels, alongside the slow reveal of Amanda’s story.
- Ellie Cooper’s asides and comments in her transcripts – she often felt more ‘alive’ than the characters being interviewed and was used by Hallett to position the readers’ response to the events.
What Could Have Been Different
- There could have been slightly less obvious signposting of discrepancies between different characters accounts.
- I wish we could have met Gabriel directly.
- The conclusion and resolution felt a little overly melodramatic and abrupt.
I suppose that, when you have a winning formula, you would be foolish to change it!
And Hallett does seem to have hit upon a very effective way of writing thrillers, using the epistolary format of the nineteenth century – forever linked to Dracula and Frankenstein in my mind – with the twenty-first century’s mediums for communication. Emails, transcripts of recordings, messages form the vehicle by which Hallett’s narratives are propelled. In The Appeal, her first book, those messages had been within the community at the heart of the murder and the investigation; in The Alperton Angels, the messages – the epistles – are focussed on Amanda Bailey, the true crime novelist who is writing about the events from two decades previously.
In some ways, this change worked well: Amanda’s voice was engaging and powerful and consistent, and she appeared to be a well-respected and reliable writer. Through the novel, however, her own ethics were seriously questionable on numerous occasions. She lied blatantly to get interviews, she bullied, she cajoled, she recorded interviews without consent, she ghosted friends who got into trouble.
The case that she is writing about – that of the Alperton Angels – is eighteen years old and revolves around an alleged cult who appear to have believed themselves to be angels and who attempted to murder a baby that they believed to be the antichrist. When a member of the cult broke ranks and rescued the baby, alerting the authorities, they committed mass suicide and their bodies mutilated. The only survivor, the ringleader Gabriel Angelis, had been arrested after the suicides and convicted of another separate murder. Because of the age of the baby and child protection issues, there had been limits to reporting of the case but Amanda is invited to find the baby, now approaching its eighteenth birthday, and tell the story from its point of view. Would a babe-in-arms have a point of view?
The baby proves rather elusive to find despite Amanda’s repeated assurances to her publisher that she is hot on its trail but she does track down Holly and Jonah, two vulnerable teens who had been drawn into Gabriel Angelis’ clutches. Holly had been the one to rescue the baby; Jonah had been found at the scene with the mutilated corpses. Both were treated by the police at the time as victims rather than perpetrators.
Discrepancies occur between people’s stories when Amanda interviews them – the number of dead bodies, the presence or absence of satanic symbols, whether a knife was pulled at any point; shady characters appear to warn Amanda off her investigation; potential informants die suddenly before Amanda can speak to them. Conspiracy emerges.
Alongside this developing story, we also have the relationship between Amanda and her erstwhile colleague now rival writer, Oliver. Initially in competition, then forced uneasily to work together, the messages and covertly recorded conversations between them are awkward and uncomfortable, at times somewhat caring. And it takes a long time before the history between them is explained to us. Oliver – we are told – is a deeply rational character, but he falls rapidly into respecting, sympathising with and sharing the angels’ belief in the other world and the supernatural elements of the story from two decades previously.
For me, this is perhaps where the novel lacked a little. Had the novel given more credence to those supernatural elements – had it aimed for the genuinely creepy atmosphere where the possibility that they angels may have been something other remained open – it might have been a very different and more unsettling novel. Hallett is more than capable of writing in that style: she includes a number of fictionalised accounts of the Angels’ events in the novel alongside Amanda’s investigation and one in particularly is genuinely disturbing. Unfortunately, as we are very much given Amanda’s point of view, Oliver’s interest is dismissed as evidence of his weakness of mind and it occurs very abruptly and suddenly and was not wholly convincing.
Oliver’s succumbing to the angel’s theories was perhaps prompted by the interview with Gabriel Angelis in prison. Frequently in the novel – both in the past and the present – we are told how charismatic, how charming, how manipulative Gabriel is and it is a shame that Hallett didn’t really let us in on that interview. A charismatic monster is wonderful – nodding again to Dracula – but perhaps it is the Jaws effect; perhaps he is more potent because he is not put before us.
Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed this as a read, although my favourite character was perhaps the one we spent least time with, Ellie Cooper, Amanda’s friend and transcriber whose comments and asides in the transcripts paint a surprisingly warm character in very few words. With most of Hallett’s novels so far, I found the final chapters and resolutions a little too neat and tidy and sudden – somehow reminding me of the Scooby Doo gang unmasking the villain and explaining every mysterious event. This is no different and the sudden twist at the end felt rather contrived and melodramatic, but by that time I was fully invested in the novel and was (just about) willing to continue to suspend my disbelief – even if doing so with one somewhat sceptically raised eyebrow…
Will I continue to read Hallett’s novels? Yes, of course. Do I feel that I’d like a different or more traditional format? Yes, but as I said at the beginning, why change a format that has put into the best sellers’ list over and over?
Many thanks to Richard Osman and Penguin Books for the chance to read this ARC, courtesy of NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review.