The laudatory editorial comments that appear on the front and back covers and fill four pages of Janice Hallett’s latest novel do her no favors. “Agatha Christie has found her heir . . . “ “The Queen of tricksy crime . . . “ “Agatha Christie for the 21st century . . . “ “A new Agatha Christie for the modern age . . . “
With her first (and I will suggest still her best) mystery, The Appeal, I would argue that the comparison to Christie – something I admittedly hate as a rule – had greater application. Set in the world of a suburban British community theatre, the book contained a fairly traditional (but huge) closed circle of suspects and some wonderful twists worthy of the Queen of Crime. And yet Hallett’s follow-up, The Twyford Code, had her operating on a different plane entirely. Less a traditional mystery than a massive puzzle box, its solution was not predicated on unmasking a killer so much as sorting out a fairly unwieldy list of questions spanning a decades-long conspiracy. What linked both books together was Hallett’s style of utilizing modern-day technology to create a variation on the epistolary novel, with most of The Appeal told in a series of e-mails, while The Twyford Code breaks down the lengthy audio files found on a recovered iPhone to tell its story.
The Mysterious Case of the Alperton Angels is a sort of hybrid of her first two books: like The Appeal, it is largely made up of e-mails, transcribed interviews, conversations found on phones and WhatsApp, and other documents, including passages from a variety of novels and screenplays. But this is no simple whodunnit; if anything, it makes the massive scale of Twyford Code seem paltry. And while I have to admit that the huge cast of characters and sketchy beginnings of the investigation nearly confounded me at first, before I knew it I was hooked. What Hallett ultimately delivers here is not only a twisty puzzle, filled with her usual darkly funny characters (here even darker than before), it is also a disquisition on society’s obsession with true crime with a fascinating moral conundrum at its core.
“YOU HAVE A KEY THAT OPENS A SAFE DEPOSIT BOX.
INSIDE IS A BUNDLE OF DOCUMENTS, ARCHIVED RESEARCH, MATERIAL FOR A BOOK THAT HAS JUST BEEN PUBLISHED.
YOU MUST READ IT ALL AND MAKE A DECISION.
REPLACE THE DOCUMENTS AND THE BOX, THEN THROW THE KEY WHERE IT WILL NEVER BE FOUND . . .
TAKE EVERYTHING TO THE POLICE.”
These are the instructions we are handed on the first page, and for once the dilemma we are presented with has some meat. We are immediately plunged into the world of best-selling true crime author Amanda Bailey, grumbling to her agent about the creative funk in which she finds herself and eager to find a new project worthy of her talents. Soon enough, she is presented with the opportunity to explore one of the most horrific unsolved crimes in modern British history: the bloody history of the Alperson Angels.
In 2003, a group of men were found butchered in a London warehouse. They were identified as members of a small cult that believed each of them was an actual angel in human form. Their mission was to protect the world from the coming of the Anti-Christ. The survivors of this mass suicide were a teenage couple and their baby, as well as the cult’s charismatic leader, who called himself the Archangel Gabriel. This leader would be convicted of the murder of the men in the warehouse, while the teens and the child would vanish.
Oh, yes . . . and the baby was reputed to be the Anti-Christ himself!
Now, on the eve of the child’s 18th birthday, Amanda is charged with finding the missing mother, father and baby and interviewing them for a new book about the case. To make matters more complicated, she discovers that there is a rival project in the works, helmed by Oliver Menzies, a former colleague of Amanda’s with whom she has a very complicated history.
All of this information can be found on the dust jacket, but don’t worry about spoilers: in a rare showing of good judgment, I won’t divulge a single plot point more. What I will say is that this is Hallett’s most complex plot yet, that for much of it the nature of the evil Amanda seeks to uncover is creepy to the point that you wonder if the author is channeling Ira Levin rather than Agatha Christie, and that by the end those words from the start that I included above will actually haunt you. What would you do if you came across something like this, where whatever choice you make could result in true justice and further tragedy?
That final question is especially impactful here because, even though there is a seemingly clear-cut battle here between good and evil, Hallett has created a story that has no heroes and no easy answers. And if at first there seem to be too many extraneous characters and too much plot, eventually things start to come into clearer focus, even as the answers are kept tantalizingly hidden.
In a way, the case is beside the point to the enjoyment found in following Amanda and Oliver, whose lives are altered in powerful ways by this freaky case they’re investigating. Hallett excels at creating flawed characters who defy easy categorization. Just when I had it figured that Amanda was something of a ruthless, self-serving fake, Hallett hands us an example of her acumen at her job or a bit of background that makes her more sympathetic.
Our impressions of Oliver flip-flop in similar ways, although his character arc is completely different. And then there is a third major character, a criminal psychologist named Ellie Cooper, whom Amanda hires to transcribe all her interviews. At first, it seemed like Ellie would bear some resemblance to Issy Beck, my favorite character in The Appeal, providing comic relief even as her own hidden depths emerge. Again, however, Hallett offers further surprises with Ellie’s arc, transforming her into . . . well, I said I would not spoil things!
There are so many layers of mystery to uncover here, not all of them necessarily connected with the horrific events that occurred twenty years earlier. The epistolary style lends itself to a quick read, but I would suggest you proceed more slowly in order to better absorb the myriad of plot twists, the wonderfully humorous moments that imbue major and minor characters, and the unsettling feeling that wanders throughout the narrative, leaving its characters and the reader mulling over the possibility that, maybe this time, the end is nigh . . .
3 thoughts on “DATELINE MEETS “THE OMEN”: The Mysterious Case of the Alperton Angels”
Really whetted my appetite for this, Brad. I enjoyed THE APPEAL when I read it early this year (though I spotted the central clue and solved the case), and I start THE TWYFORD CODE from the library tomorrow. This really sounds up my alley!
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Thanks Brad. I just read THE APPEAL (as always, keeping up with the Joneses in a timely manner) and you make this sound really compelling – the ginormous cast of largely unsympathetic characters of APPEAL didn’t stop me racing through it at top speed, so will definitely give this one a whirl. Thanks mate.
I am so very excited to read this (as soon as the Royal Mail figured out its import issues and gets it to my door, it’s been weeks!). I’m also intrigued by the fictional true crime investigation as it seems like that’s been a bigger trend in the crime and mystery space – Only Murders in the Building, Anna and Fin, etc.