We’ve been big fans of Janice Hallett since her US debut, The Appeal last year. We’re also fans of secret codes in books. We ARE booksellers, after all! But don’t believe only us. More than one or two or many people, actually, have likened Hallett’s work to Agatha Christie. Spoiler alert! We are pretty sure you’ll be wanting to read a third book after Hallett’s sophomore release.
Forty years ago, Steven “Smithy” Smith found a copy of a famous children’s book by disgraced author Edith Twyford, its margins full of strange markings and annotations. When he showed it to his remedial English teacher Miss Iles, she believed that it was part of a secret code that ran through all of Twyford’s novels. And when she disappeared on a class field trip, Smithy became convinced that she had been right.
Now, out of prison after a long stretch, Smithy decides to investigate the mystery that has haunted him for decades. In a series of voice recordings on an old iPhone from his estranged son, Smithy alternates between visiting the people of his childhood and looking back on the events that later landed him in prison.
But it soon becomes clear that Edith Twyford wasn’t just a writer of forgotten children’s stories. The Twyford Code holds a great secret, and Smithy may just have the key.
“A modern Agatha Christie” (The Sunday Times, London), Janice Hallett has constructed a fiendishly clever, maddeningly original crime novel for lovers of word games, puzzles, and stories of redemption.
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Audio Files Batch 1 [Start Transcript]
Audio File 1
Date: April 12, 2019, 2:20 PM
Audio quality: Poor
.hhhhh Ready? This is to show Maxine I meant what I said.
Audio File 2
Date: April 12, 2019, 2:24 PM
Audio quality: Good
That’s better. So. I’m speaking into my son’s old phone and will explain why in a little bit. I’m not used to it, so (...) When he first gave it to me I was convinced I’d never use it for anything other than speaking to Maxine and calling in sick. But that night I sat up till two o’clock [DecipherItTM time ref 52781277-0988837]
I’ve played every record in his iTunes. His idea. It was only the second time we’d met. He didn’t grow up with me, see. I never knew he existed till an acquaintance mentioned his mum’d had a kid. I put two and two together and made nine months. He would a been ten then. There’s so much to say, but I look at him across that table in Costa, his hair about to turn grey at the edges and tiny lines on his forehead. I think: How could my boy be so grown up? Everything slides clean out me head and we sit there in silence.
Finally, I mention how much I’m looking forward to meeting his wife and kids, seeing his house in Surrey and the posh university where he works. That’s when he gets a panicked look and bursts out he doesn’t want us to meet again. Perhaps the odd phone call. Keep in touch but not (...) So, he goes quiet and says we can FaceTime instead. I says isn’t this FaceTime? He asks to see the phone they gave me on release and when I show him he laughs and says it’s a burner, can’t do much with that. I say yeah, that’s the idea. He thinks for a bit and says have my old one. He gets it out his car and in a few minutes his old phone was my new phone.
Audio File 3
Date: April 12, 2019, 3:04 PM
Audio quality: Good
If I wanted to carry on as I had, there are lots of people I could have gone to. Even now, after all that went on, with the old crowd dead or inside, if I put the word out, I could be set up somewhere, doing something, in no time. But I won’t. Those days are over. Trouble is, on this side a the fence I don’t know a soul. Only Maxine and (...) only you, Maxine. A lot changed for me in the last few years. And do you know what triggered it? I learned to read.
Two youngsters come in. A boy and a girl. Just in their twenties. Claimed to have a whole new way to teach adults with literacy problems. Not easy. Most in that place had so many problems literacy was the least of ’em. But these youngsters were so enthusiastic you couldn’t help but get carried along. Even the tough old fellows. And the young fellows who thought they were tough.
They took our chairs away. Made us move round the room. Not like being slumped in front of a teacher, staring, trying to listen. They got us to play with big alphabet letters. It was nothing but strange at first. Big gnarly old fellows playing like kids. Then a change happened. Words appeared. I could link them to sounds, meanings, in a way I never had at school. It was like I’d cracked a secret code.
We all made progress thanks to them youngsters. I say progress, Kos of course, ignorance is bliss. Spanners realized one of his oldest tattoos was spelt wrong. Smelly Bob finally understood the graffiti on his cell nameplate. But for me it opened a door where there’d always been a wall (...) That sounds like I escaped, but (...) suppose I did escape, in my head. Suddenly the library cart weren’t just where I bought me contraband. It were stacked with treasure waiting to be found.
I read sentence after sentence. Couldn’t get enough of words. Well, I had a lot of time to make up for. Before long I read a whole book from start to finish. Lord of the Flies. I was on top of the world. It meant I could read. Finally. I was. I could suddenly (. .) That’s when I started thinking I’d do THIS when I got out. And it got me through the last few years.
All them kids running around wild on that island. Took me back, I suppose. Something nagged at me about missiles and what happened all those years ago. I read Animal Farm too, but it was all talking animals. Didn’t get to me like piggy and Ralph. Afterward I still had that feeling. I’ve got it now. It’s always there. Nagging. Unfinished.
Audio File 4
Date: April 12, 2019, 6:44 PM
Audio quality: Good
It’s a nuisance I don’t know how to listen back to these recordings after I’ve done ’em. Maybe they can help at the library (. . . . .) So I can read now much better, but writing is still tricky. When I discovered I can record my voice on my son’s old phone, just like the old dictating machines but no need for little cassettes, I decided I’d dictate this. What is it? Diary? Project? Investigation? For Maxine. Something for me to do when I finish work at the end of the day. Keep me busy. Out of trouble.
I want to make clear that although I couldn’t read, I weren’t as illiterate as some of ’em in there. Some wouldn’t know their own name if it were up in ten-foot flashing lights. Not me. I could recognize important words. Steven Smith. Toilets. Gents. Men. Tickets. Exit. I’d pick out the shapes of the words rather than individual letters.
We learn from the knowledge of others and reading is a big part of that for most people. So if you can’t do it, there’s an assumption you must be stupid. Now, I may not be well read, but I know about the world. I’ve lived. I’ve had experiences and watched a lot of very interesting documentaries, especially over the last few years. I’d also like to say that I consider myself an articulate person. Verbally that is. I listen to what’s said. Not just hear. Listen. I’ve heard just as many words as you’ve read, Maxine. And if you’ve heard a word once, you can use it yourself as often as you like from then on.
For all those years I didn’t miss what I’d never had. Didn’t feel the need to read sentences. I could wing it. If I got caught out I’d say, oh I’ve lost my glasses, could you read it for me? It has its plus side too. Think about it. If you need to remember something, you write it down. I couldn’t—and still can’t—but it means I remember things. My memory is much better than yours, I’ll bet. That’s why missiles plays on my mind, because there’s so much of that time I CAN’T remember. Or forgotten. Can’t remember. Forgotten. Or never knew.
Audio File 5
Date: April 13, 2019, 7:09 PM
Audio quality: Good
Been listening to my son’s playlist called CAR. None of the songs are about cars, so he must put this music on when he’s in his car. I think of him on that journey from Surrey to Uxbridge every day. Back again in the evening. I keep going to record my next bit but stop. I’ll do it now.
I’ll start at the beginning but skip some bits you don’t want to (...) So I’ll say I was born in London on the very last day of 1968. It never felt right to say I was born in sixty-eight because the year was all but over, and sixty-nine would be wrong because it wasn’t begun. I still explain it to this day. Funny. Similar thing. At school when they asked where do you live I said Girton House and they’d assume we lived way up in the sky. I’d have to say no: we live on the ground floor. We lived on the ground floor of a high-rise. See, some answers are (. .) sometimes the truth is misleading.
I’m sure at one time there mustard been both my parents, my brother, and I in the flat, but I don’t remember it. When you’re that young, the home is scenery, I suppose, the heart. Everything safe, trusted, and right tricky to recall years later (....) Mum mustard left very early on (. .) because she were hardly ever mentioned. Even now it feels funny saying the word out loud.
When I said it just then, I got a feeling. Of being lifted up from under me arms. Like whoever had hold a me would never let me go. Warm. Sweet .hhhhh (...) I’ve had the feeling before. It comes in a flash, most often when I get a whiff of certain old-fashioned perfumes. Talcum powder mixed with something else. Is that her? Is there a memory of her in me chest after all? Or am I just feeling the (...) emptiness (...)
We never had a camera so there were no photos of her. And seeing as my folks never got married, there were no wedding pictures either. Only once did I get me nerve up to ask Dad where Mum was. He said she’d run off with a fella just after I were born. She got a big house now, he said, happy she ain’t got you two on her hands. He meant Colin and me. Then he smashed a bottle in the sink, slammed his way out the flat, and disappeared for two days. I never mentioned it again.
Don’t remember the exact day Dad left for good. He’d come and go at the best a times. But it were after the Silver Jubilee and before the garbage strikes. Temporary barmaid down the local swept him off his feet, Colin shrugged as he told me. Can’t blame him, Steve, you can be a proper little s[EXPLICIT]t sometimes and she’s got a nice, clean flat up north.
From then on, Colin looked after me. I say that. He took washing down to the laundromat and stuck a pot a beans on the stove every now and then, but he didn’t talk much. Eleven years older than me. When I think of him I remember the seventies. And vice versa.
Flares. Long hair. The Boomtown Rats on Top of the Pops. He’d watch TV in the chair by the electric fire. In his nylon shirt and tank top. If we could’ve afforded to switch it up he would’ve gone up like a rocket. Browns, oranges, yellows, greens all clashing like mad. He was still in the same clothes well into the eighties. Eventually he got a job at a metalwork factory and would come home covered in blobs of solder.
It sounds bad now. As if I didn’t have any upbringing. But I didn’t know any different. I don’t even think of my trouble as starting back then. It was the summer of ’83. That was when (...) missiles (...)
Audio File 6
Date: April 14, 2019, 12:20 PM
Audio quality: Good
I’ll tell you it all now and not stop start. 1983 was a hot summer in London. I remember a lot of lightness. Pale-colored clothes. Girls in dusty pink, blue, and white. I was fourteen so I noticed what the girls were wearing. It was June or July.
I were still going to school then. And still worried about being late for registration. I was late that day. Couldn’t run, though. Stifling hot for that time of morning. I was in a hurry because the boy I usually walked with had already gone. It crossed my mind I could get a bus and at that very moment, would you believe it, a big green bus swung into the curb and stopped right in front of me. Well, I thought how lucky I was and jumped on.
Now, you’ll know double-decker London buses back then had an open platform at the back for passengers to get on and off whenever they liked. You’ll also know that London buses are red, not green. They were most certainly red where we lived. You had to go all the way out to the suburbs to find a green bus. It’s something I’ve thought about a lot lately. That green bus.
So, I leapt on the bus and tore up the stairs to sit at the front of the top deck. Funny. I don’t remember anyone else being on it. No passengers and no conductor. Is that my memory playing tricks? So I reached the top deck and hurray it’s empty too. Just as I headed for the front seat, something stopped me and I decided to sit at the very back instead. On that cosy little seat tucked away, quite special. What was it made me do that? Could I see it?
I stopped in my tracks. There it was. Placed neatly on the checkered cushion. A book.
Now, to me, back then, a book was a book. All books were the same. Except they had different covers. This one had a pencil drawing of a boy in a red jumper, watching a model plane in the sky. That I remember clearly. I had to pick it up to sit down, so I did. The moment I touched that book, the bus set off and I settled down with it on my lap, nothing much more in my mind than getting to school.
I don’t claim to be an angel. Then or now. No one seemed to own the book, so taking it couldn’t be stealing. But I had enough of a conscience to know I should hand it to the driver. So as the bus trundled nearer the school, I waited on the open deck, glanced over. Couldn’t quite see him beyond the back of his seat, the blind half up, half down. I would have had to run round and bang on the window of his cab. I dismissed that thought pretty quickly because the possibility of selling the book had taken up residence in my head. Into my school bag it went.
The next thing I remember is being in are E. Now. I should go back and explain this. Are E doesn’t stand for religious education as you might expect, but remedial English. It weren’t a year prior to this that my homeroom teacher made me stand up in class and read something out loud. After a moment or two, a thoughtful look on her face, she said, quite matter of fact, oh you’re dyslexic. Oh, you’re dyslexic. It was hardly a scientific diagnosis and didn’t seem a big deal to anyone, except I had to attend are E instead of English with the rest of the class.
There were five of us in are E at that time. I remember them all: Nathan, Michelle, Donna, Paul, and me. Five kids who found two of the most basic human skills, reading and writing, difficult to impossible. All shuffled aside into a tiny classroom to struggle with what everyone else had mastered easily a decade earlier. No wonder we (. .) I wonder if the others still think of it too.
Audio File 7
Date: April 14, 2019, 1:15 PM
Audio quality: Good
So I slunk off up the stairs to are E, to that little classroom at the end of the top floor. I wasn’t in the habit of listening, so I don’t remember what the lesson was about. With nothing else to occupy it, my mind wandered to the book in my bag. If I sold it at the right price, I could buy chips on the way home. I slid it out under the desk, had a flick through. The words were meaningless to me but I took in the pencil drawings and occasional color illustration. In truth I was looking for any selling points that would help me peddle it to the nerdy kids at break.
STEVEN SMITH. She’d spotted me. What are you doing? Reading a book, miss. You and your stories, she gasps. What have I told you? Don’t make things up.
There she was. Missiles. Standing over me, hands on hips. Eyebrows raised. Finger beckoning me to give her whatever I had under the desk.
I held out the book. It was a temporary hitch. She’d give it back at the end of class. Her eyes dropped to it and I will never forget the surprised tone of her, OH, it IS a book. The way her eyebrows disappeared under her fringe when she saw the cover. Where did you get this?
A stream of potential answers circled round my mind, none of them the truth. A bookshop. Missiles drifted back to her desk, turned the book over in her hands. She laughed to herself as if remembering something pleasant from long ago.
Now I might have found reading difficult, but I weren’t slow.
It’s for sale, miss. She pretended not to hear.
I read this when I was younger than you. It was my favorite, she says, all wistful. At that I added a zero to my asking price and a battered sausage to the big bag of chips in my mind.
She suddenly snapped out of that dreamy look and gave me a hard stare. You shouldn’t have this, Steven. Not here. Not now. Not in this school.
Why not, miss? It’s mine. I bought it.
Because it’s BANNED. Her hushed tone sent a little shiver down my spine.
Well, till now the other kids had been slumped in the heat, watching with what I can only say was gratitude the class had been interrupted, and glee it weren’t them in the firing line. But at this news their ears pricked up.
Mine did, too, but with a creeping sense of horror. Banned? None of the illustrations had borne any resemblance to the shredded nudey mags I’d occasionally seen in the park. Ripped pages half trodden into the mud. No expert, had I missed a sexual element to the childish drawings? Did missiles think I’d been w[EXPLICIT]g under the desk? I swallowed, mortified.
Why’s it banned? Paul was an unpredictable kid. Moody. Brooding. Got into fights like an alley cat. Kids and adults alike wondered aloud why he was like he was. No one linked it to the fact his father hung himself in his garage a few years previous. Those were the days.
Is it rude? Michelle, or Shell, looked like Jay from Bucks Fizz. Big blond hair, earrings, makeup. As young kids we hung out together on the estate. She were turned out the flat when her ma had a customer, so she’d tap on me window and we’d sit on the swings in the dark. She didn’t have a dad and I didn’t have a (...) mum. But that were then. By 1983, Shell were a long way out a my league.
Missiles perched on her desk. Legs crossed, she properly examined the book, eyes devouring every page. Finally, she looked up. Sighed.
Why IS it banned? You tell me.
Then she read it to us.
Now, she can’t have read the whole book out loud. But she read quite a bit. I admit I was riveted. I remember bits of it to this day. A bunch of kids with flowery names go camping and spot some dodgy movements at an abandoned airfield. The class went so quiet while she read. Something hypnotic in the rhythm of the words. Remember we were kids who couldn’t read for ourselves, so I think in those moments we had a taste a what we were missing. That’s me saying that now, though. Me, an old man who thinks he understands a bit better.
What’s that bleeping noise? Oh, it’s.
Audio File 8
Date: April 14, 2019, 2:03 PM
Audio quality: Good
It was only Maxine on the line. Where was I?
So missiles had silence while she read. The story raced along until she turned a page and stopped. She was frozen to the spot, captivated by something in the book. A slip of paper. She turned it over in her fingers, examined it, peered closer as if it were tricky to see. Then she frowned as if faced with the most extraordinary puzzle.
She dropped the slip of paper back between the pages. Slowly checked her watch. Closed the book. We were still, silent, as we watched her. The odd glance between us. Then something momentous occurred.
What happens in the end? Nathan didn’t speak. He just didn’t. Back then, when a kid didn’t speak—and I mean AT ALL—they were just the kid who didn’t speak.
All heads turned to look at him. Hood up, even in this heat. He surely couldn’t see much out of it. The only black kid in the class.
Do they find out who the stranger is? Donna had short hair like a boy. Unusual for those days.
Why’s it banned, miss? Paul wasn’t letting that one go.
Nothing. Finally, the bell rung missiles out of her thoughts. She looked up at us, five little faces all waiting for an answer, rapt with attention for the very first time. A bunch of rejects who got nothing out of school on a good day (...) yeah, she could see she was on to something.
I’ll read the rest next lesson and we’ll talk about it then, she said, to our collective sigh of resignation. Meanwhile I hadn’t forgotten my battered sausage and chips. As the other kids picked up their bags and skulked out, I approached the desk.
Sorry, miss, but I need the book back OR it’s yours for ten pounds. She gave me a look.
Steven, this book is a distraction. It is my job to prevent it ruining your education. Anyway, there’s something I need to look into.
But, miss, I (. .) I need to (.) It’s er (...) Did she know I’d taken it? Was she going to trace its legal owner? In a panic I couldn’t think quickly enough.
Where did you really find it? She had the book open, held against her chest, out of my reach.
I swallowed hard. How did she know I’d found it? Had to think fast. I shrugged, can’t remember.
With a sharp CLAP she snapped the book shut and out wafted the slip of paper. She caught it. Gave me another look, a strange glinty stare this time.
What’s this? She said it as if she’d never seen that slip of paper before. I glanced at it, recovered my wits.
Bookmark, miss. Should be an extra pound, but for ten pound fifty, you can have it for free.
A good few looks crossed missiles face.
See. Here. She thrust the slip of paper momentarily under my nose. A line of type danced before my eyes as unintelligible as ever, before it was snatched out of my sight for good.
It says deliver to Alice isles. This book is mine, Smithy. She glared. It’s meant for ME.
Audio File 9
Date: April 14, 2019, 2:53 PM
Audio quality: Good
Did it really say that? Doesn’t make sense that it would. I only found the book by chance, didn’t I? She knew full well I couldn’t read what was on that slip. But bearing in mind what happened next, I’m not so sure. I know I left that classroom with a feeling I’d been conned. I felt so—what?—unnerved I decided there and then I’d never be conned again, never be caught out, always be one step ahead of anyone else. And yes, looking back, those moments on my own with missiles probably were the last time I was lost for words. But it was just the beginning of this story.