translated by Larissa Kyzer
If you’re the excitable type who enjoys it when things blow up or burn down—but in a book, Congressman Gaetz, only in a book!—this month brings two wonderfully incendiary books with explosions both metaphorical and literal.
But don’t despair if you prefer the long game or the slow burn. There’s something here for you as well, and its rewards can be found in The Twyford Code, the second novel by English writer Janice Hallett, whose debut, The Appeal, was such a hit last year. Though she continues to play with form, her new book is different.
The Appeal comprised e-mails and legal reports from a variety of people, while The Twyford Code is written almost entirely in diary-like voice memos. They’ve been recorded on a phone by Steven Smith, a 50-ish former criminal who’s done prison time as a member of the Harrison gang, one of London’s venerable crime families. Smith is barely literate, but he’s a whiz at math, a useful skill for a gangster.
When he is released from prison after 12 years, Smith, whose childhood would have made Dickens weep, is determined to stay clean and find out what happened to a favorite teacher who disappeared during a field trip. He believes that a code hidden in a series of children’s books from the 30s written by Edith Twyford holds the key to the mystery, so he revisits his youth and old classmates for clues.
Or so it seems, for a good portion of the book, during which the word-game-loving reader may become quite invested in cracking the code. But anyone familiar with the sprinkling of unreliable narrators in The Appeal will realize that the appealing ex-con could be one of those. The path to this revelation is absorbing fun, due to the wickedly clever plot twists and Smith’s self-deprecating charm. Hallett has given a leading role to the literary equivalent of the runty character actor, and Smith makes the most of it, in ways you won’t foresee.
While Smith’s special powers derive from his aptitude for math, Anna Arnardóttir’s are rooted in her mastery of earth science. As Iceland’s top expert on volcanology, she’s created a perfect life to counter the unpredictability of her profession: an orderly home and a stable family life with her adoring husband and two children. Her need for structure is also connected to an eccentric upbringing by her father, a legendary volcanology professor, and without her largely absent mother.
The word-game-loving reader may become quite invested in cracking the code of Janice Hallett’s The Twyford Code.
Iceland owes its existence to volcanoes, so the threat of earthquakes and eruptions is ever present, resulting in a complex national mindset and a serious emergency-warning system. When a series of tremblors rumble Reykjavík, two sides of Anna’s character collide. Based on narrow scientific observation and influenced by the risible greed of the tourism industry, the pragmatic Anna argues that these quakes are not precursors to a dangerous eruption, so there’s no need to evacuate, while the instinctive Anna knows that something potentially devastating is brewing.
Distracting her at the worst imaginable time is a sudden, uncontrollable infatuation with a raffish photographer who’s covering the developing event. The earth’s volatility is an obvious metaphor for their disruptive relationship, but this is no love-among-the-lava-flows bodice ripper. Sigrídur Hagalín Björnsdóttir writes with a finely honed balance of emotional intelligence and scientific assurance in which moments of stillness and reflection are as important as the rain of fire and ash.
It’s worth noting that Iceland’s Fagradalsfjall volcano erupted in March of 2021, four months after The Fires was first published in Icelandic, and again in August of 2022. That and the recent eruption of Mauna Loa, in Hawaii, make this book especially timely.
The earth’s volatility is a metaphor for a disruptive relationship in Sigrídur Hagalín Björnsdóttir’s The Fires, but this is no love-among-the-lava-flows bodice ripper.
The threat of destruction by earthquake or wildfire is something that hums in the subconscious of Los Angelenos as well, and it’s possible it makes them a little more reckless, a bit more qué será, será, than folks in, say, Toledo.
But that might be an overly generous explanation for the behavior of the dead and actively evil souls who populate Everybody Knows. The kind of corruption that has fueled L.A. noir for almost a century has gotten only more widespread and institutionalized in the moral hellscape mapped out by Jordan Harper, who is also a TV producer and writer. He wraps private-security and P.R. firms, lawyers, crisis management, and so on into one compromised entity called “The Beast,” which enables a plethora of crimes.
Our guide through this sordid world is Mae Pruett, a battle-hardened Missouri transplant who works for Mitnick & Associates, a crisis-management firm where business is always booming. The scene that greets Mae as she enters the room of an actress in need of her services at the Chateau Marmont is typical: “Two men and a woman slouch on the vintage couch like throw pillows. Lifestyle and face fillers have turned them into triplets. Mae knows the type: remoras, fish that eat the trash off the body of a shark.”
The shark herself is battered and needs protection from other parasites of the TMZ variety. Mae handles the situation neatly, but there’s worse to come when her boss is murdered in front of the Beverly Hills Hotel and she begins to wonder where the ceaseless cycle of cover-ups should end and some form of responsibility begin.
The kind of corruption that has fueled L.A. noir for almost a century has gotten only more widespread and institutionalized in the moral hellscape mapped out by Jordan Harper in Everybody Knows.
She forms an alliance with a former cop/boyfriend who knows the score, and together they quixotically take on the Beast. Harper climbs right down into its belly, a place he seems to know intimately, and starts throwing bombs in the form of damning, virtuosically written scenes like the one at the Chateau Marmont, one after the other. Consider me shocked and awed.
Mae’s ambivalence about her job—the insider thrills it delivers versus its amorality—is the dilemma of most noir antiheroes, including Raymond Chandler’s archetypal private detective, Philip Marlowe, in The Big Sleep (1939), one of the essential texts of L.A. noir.
They don’t come more hard-boiled or cynical than Marlowe, but he walks a tricky line when he takes on the wealthy invalid General Sternwood as a client. Even he is disturbed by the shenanigans of Sternwood’s daughters, gambling addict Vivian and thumb-sucking, giggling Carmen, for whom trouble is like oxygen. Unsurprisingly, someone is blackmailing the old man, and he wants Marlowe to handle it, whatever that might involve.
So begins Marlowe’s journey through a network of gambling, pornography, murder, and general human rancidness. Other than technological advances and the inroads made by #MeToo, The Big Sleep shows that, fundamentally, not much has changed.
I’ll leave the last word to Leonard Cohen, whose song presumably inspired the title of Harper’s book: “Everybody knows that the dice are loaded / Everybody rolls with their fingers crossed / Everybody knows the war is over / Everybody knows the good guys lost.”
Lisa Henricksson reviews mystery books for AIR MAIL. She lives in New York City