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‘The Twyford Code’ review – engaging but frustrating

In 2021, Janice Hallett stormed the bestseller charts with her first book, The Appeal, a modern take on the epistolary novel within a local drama group. She followed it up a year later with The Twyford Code, which employs a similar form but instead focuses on a single character, in the midst of investigating his past. I can’t speak for The Appeal, but I have read The Twyford Code, and my view is… mixed. Where there are highs in this book, there are real highs, but the issues really hold this one back.

The book takes the form of a selection of audio transcription, sent by Inspector Waliso to a maths professor. They purport to show the thoughts of Steven Smith, a contact out of prison after a long stretch, who decides to investigate a mystery that has haunted him for years – the disappearance of his remedial English teacher, Miss Isles. Forty years ago, Steven shared a book with her by the famous children’s author Edith Twyford, and Miss Isles became convinced that it was the key to solving a puzzle. He revisits the people and places of his childhood, and starts to put things together – but it seems that danger is following him, as he is far from the only person interested in the Twyford Code.

My partner bought this book for me because of my frustration with the ‘old friends meet in an isolated location and a murder happens’ trend of the moment, and it does deliver something really different. The Twyford Code offers three main mysteries – what happened to Miss Isles? What happened to Steven Smith, or what did he do, that sent him to prison? And what is the Twyford Code, and what does it lead to? The solutions to some of these puzzles are far more engaging than others, and one left me distinctly underwhelmed.

I was worried when the book presented a readability guide at the start, and it is much needed.

Hallett opts for a novel way of presenting the story, using transcriptions of audio files that break things into episodes – we see Steven’s recorded thoughts, and we hear conversations between people. I won’t lie, this is really frustrating to get used to, and it put me off reading the book for a while. There are a whole range of typos as results of the transcription software (‘must have’ becomes ‘mustard’, for example), and spaces denoting silence, emphasis and swearing – I was worried when the book presented a readability guide at the start, which is much needed. Particularly unhelpful is the choice to describe the conversations using ‘voice 1’, ‘voice 2’, etc., which makes it not infrequently difficult to follow.

However, despite the difficulties, this framework did offer an interesting way to frame the main character, and I thought that Steven really came alive. I could picture this man and hearing him conveying the tale, and there were moments where I genuinely felt sorry for him – there’s an audio file in which he describes himself as just an old man in an old car talking into his son’s old phone, and it’s genuinely quite affecting. We don’t learn too much about many of the other characters, so it’s good that Steven is so well-written (save a few points when he says things that feel unnatural to the character as portrayed).

The Twyford Code is a strange book to review, because it works in a number of ways and is incredibly clever, but struggles a little as a reading experience.

Many of the reviews praise how The Twyford Code comes together at the end, either consolidating a fantastic story or elevating a weaker one. The ending is exceptionally clever, yes, but I found it fell a little flat for me on two levels – it shook up what had happened before a little too much, and it felt completely unreachable. After the end reveal, I didn’t have that satisfying moment of ‘of course it was that’ – no, it was more befuddlement, something I would never have been able to solve (except for a few clues that ultimately don’t matter too much). I fear that part of this is because the book is somewhat mis-sold as a murder mystery, but it’s ultimately clever for the sake of being clever, and it left me with far too many questions.

The Twyford Code is a strange book to review, because it works in a number of ways and is incredibly clever, but struggles a little as a reading experience. This is essentially a puzzle book, and I think that approaching it in that spirit will help you get the most out of it – sadly, I read it expecting a murder mystery with engaging characters and a strong central puzzle, and so was mostly underwhelmed. Temper your expectations accordingly – if you want a book you need to work at and work out, give it a crack. If you want a casual read, it’s best sending this collection of audio files to the dustbin.

3.0/5.0 stars

Comments (6)

  • Jacqueline Calzone

    I read this book twice. The first time I read it all the way through but later couldn’t remember how it had ended. The second time I really paid attention and it was a great deal of fun and I thought it was worth the read. It was adventurous and very mysterious and you really have to get all the way through to the very end to appreciate the hard work this author puts into this story. I have recommended it for my book club and I truly would recommend It to anyone who is looking for a Good adventure and mystery. Be patient with this one, but it is well worth the wait.

  • It was hard work, but I ploughed on to the end.

    And that end was really disappointing, and made me feel that I’d wasted hours of my time ploughing on!

    I really enjoyed ‘The Appeal’ by the same author, but this one gets a definite thumbs down from me.

  • I had this on audible and at first I found the time date stamp irritating but after a while taking note of the time and date became part of the puzzle. The ending for me wasn’t a total surprise as I had suspicions from early on, so I found it an explanation that fitted. Some of the backstory I found a bit tedious, but it was also important and worked well with the ending. Overall I found it uneven in terms of enjoyability, but I’m glad I stuck with it. The ending was still a real puzzle to think through but ultimately rewarding.

  • Terry Godat-Kelly

    I “read” it by an audiobook and found the experience very frustrating, especially since every time there was a new audio entry, the time, date, and audio level were read. It became very repetitive. As someone who loves puzzles, actually reading the book would have probably been a better experience.

  • Totally agree with the last comment. Didn’t find it an enjoyable read – struggled to the end because I really needed to understand the story but wasn’t really satisfied with the outcome! Very confusing.

  • Wendy Sinfield

    I agree with your views on this book. I enjoyed it not withstanding the confusion in some places but found the end very frustrating. In honesty I don’t understand the end! There appears to be a double solution of some kind. I love a murder mystery and like to have a conclusion. I found this book very frustrating because I didn’t get that.

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