You have a key that opens a safe deposit box. Inside is a bundle of documents … You must read it and make a decision.” So begins Janice Hallett’s third novel, The Mysterious Case of the Alperton Angels. As will be apparent to readers of her previous books, The Appeal and The Twyford Code, we are in familiar territory. Will this be a carefully curated dossier, involving multiple voices, some of them intriguingly unreliable? Will there be emails, text exchanges, news clippings, pages from screenplays? And, most importantly, will there be a dense mystery that will be satisfyingly solved by sheer authorial ingenuity in the last 50 pages? In that case, please toss another log on the fire.
The mystery concerns a long-ago triple suicide in a London cult, involving a leader self-styled as the Angel Gabriel. Amanda Bailey, a terrier-like true-crime author, is determined to dig up the truth as quickly as possible, because she’s on a deadline. Lying to people is second nature to Amanda (“No, I’m not recording this”), as is the naked exploitation of every acquaintance and contact. Enjoyably complicating Amanda’s sections is a second voice, that of her empathic assistant Ellie Cooper, who transcribes interviews and adds comments. In Ellie’s seemingly superfluous asides – which naturally repay attention – there are echoes of The Appeal’s wonderful central creation, the slippery Isabel Beck.
Having said this, the playful ingenuity of The Appeal, set around an amateur dramatics group, is missing here. The mystery is deeply buried, quite complicated, and pretty dark. Amanda’s main aim is to discover the whereabouts of a baby who was the focus of the cult’s activities. The cult were planning a ritual slaughter of this infant, calling it the Antichrist, before they apparently killed themselves instead. Afterwards, both mother and child vanished, and in the past 18 years anyone who has tried to unearth them seems rapidly to have died in suspicious circumstances.
But do we care enough about this baby? Readers presumably shouldn’t find themselves wistfully thinking, as I did once or twice: “But didn’t this all happen ages ago? Is it time to let it lie?” I think the problem is Amanda. In Hallett’s previous books, the detection of the crime – and the crimes themselves – had origins in characters we learned to care about. Here, the narrative engine is a woman whose psychotic single-mindedness is admittedly interesting, but who has no personal involvement. What’s her motivation? If she’s writing purely for gain, how much will she lose if she fails? What I most enjoyed were the passages of pastiche – especially the snatches of an airport novel called White Wings. And as ever, the author’s control of the material is masterly, the eventual solution quelling any misgivings or objections the reader may have had along the way.
This dossier method of constructing a fictional narrative has been paying dividends since the birth of the novel in the 18th century, and it is glorious to see it in good hands, and also selling in whopping quantities. When it serves a clear narrative purpose, it can lead to such terrific dramatic moments as the shock in The Woman in White when it’s revealed that the villainous Count Fosco has been reading another character’s diary – one of the great twists in 19th-century fiction. Might Hallett aspire just a little bit higher using this form? If anyone can produce a stunning Count Fosco moment, it’s her.
• The Mysterious Case of the Alperton Angels by Janice Hallett is published by Viper (£16.99). To support the Guardian and the Observer buy a copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.