British author Janice Hallett is shaking up the world of literary thrillers. In her first two (best-selling!) books, The Appeal and The Twyford Code, she uses various types of documents to tell the story. The Appeal is composed of a series of emails and other communications given to two young attorneys from a senior partner with the mission to find who the real killer is.
The Twyford Code is mostly composed of audio recording transcriptions by Steven Smith, who has just been released from prison. He decides to look into the mysterious disappearance of his childhood teacher that seemed connected to a series of children’s books which may contain a secret message. Hallett manages to tell compelling mysteries that twist in such delightful and unexpected ways. And news just broke that The Twyford Code will be adapted for television!
We were thrilled to have a chance to chat with her via email.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
What drew you to mysteries?
For as long as I can remember I’ve been thrilled by the unknown, the idea you can discover something for yourself, something no one else has ever found the answer to. I’m sure it comes from a desire to make sense of the world. Setting up fictional mysteries and solving them is a safe way to experience the darkness and ultimately reassure ourselves [that] all will be well.
For both The Appeal and The Twyford Code, you chose using documents to tell the story. What opportunities arose from this storytelling style? What difficulties do you face?
The greatest benefit of this style is that you get to see the world from the perspective of every character. As a writer I feel I jump into that character to write from their point of view, and I think readers have the chance to do that too. I don’t write much physical description of characters, because I’d like the reader to consider themselves to be that person whenever they read their words. I can’t think of any difficulties – it’s a joy to inhabit so many characters.
What made you want to tell this particular story of the Twyford Code?
It was the main character in The Twyford Code, Steven Smith, who really motivated me. He’s a former prisoner and reformed gangster who has been illiterate for most of his 50+ years. He’s only just learned to read, and still can’t write, which is why he records his investigation on an old iPhone (we are reading transcriptions of those recordings).
Given that young men are still drawn to criminal gangs today, I was drawn to explore a previous generation’s descent into gang crime. Steve looks back and with the benefit of age and hindsight can see where he made bad choices, and where choice was taken away from him. It felt like a very productive and powerful use of nostalgia.
Were you into secret maps/treasures as a child? Did you have a series like The Twyford series that compelled you as a child?
As a child, I was a HUGE fan of Enid Blyton. There’s something about Blyton’s prose, especially the rhythm of her writing that’s totally hypnotic. For example Secret Seven draws you into a mystery too. Then in 1979 Masquerade was published.
This ornate picture book by British artist Kit Williams was also a real-life treasure hunt. People all over the world became obsessed with solving the clues and finding the treasure. It all ended three years later in controversy and scandal. I didn’t read Masquerade at the time (my family were not readers or book buyers) but the furor around it stayed with me. I pay homage to it in the book as it was such an inspiration for The Twyford Code.
Are you a “pantser” or a plotter?
Panster all the way. The grass is always greener on the other side, and I suspect plotters have an easier time at later stages in a book’s gestation, but plotting in advance takes all the joy out of the first draft for me. I don’t escape the hard work—once that first draft is down, it’s a long slog to reverse engineer the story so the book I started matches the book I finished.
For both books, I feel that there’s a thread of second chances with main characters—Steven Smith has just been released from jail and Sam Greenwood is restarting her life back in the UK after her time in Doctors without Borders. Could you talk about giving folks a second chance?
Chances are we will all need a second chance, probably several over a lifetime. An element of my characters’ second chances are self-imposed. They’ve decided to change for their own good—as difficult as that process will be. Most of us veer away from change and stick with bad situations because change can be disrupting and unnerving. But change is how you grow, and if you don’t change for yourself, life has a funny way of forcing your hand.
The Twyford Code
Were you inspired by particular writers who write in an epistolary style?
I’m a big fan of Victorian novels, especially the Brontës (Anne wrote the epistolary novel The Tenant of Wildfell Hall), Thomas Hardy, and [Charles] Dickens. I also love 84, Charing Cross Road by Helene Hanff, which has been made into a play and a film. When people use only words to communicate you have to read between the lines to discover their true meaning.
What else do you want me to know?
I wrote The Twyford Code in lockdown, which meant I could concentrate entirely on it. This was lucky for me, as I had some complex codes to work in, ready for the reader to work out!
Thank you to Janice Hallett for the thoughtful conversation! For fans of Hallett's work who want more, her third book The Mysterious Case of the Alperton Angels just published in the United Kingdom in January.