Beyond the Code with JANICE HALLETT

Written by Janice Hallett

Janice Hallett, author of The Twyford Code, explains how Kit Williams’ Masquerade inspired her to AVOID writing a real-life treasure hunt into her second novel The Twyford Code.

In The Twyford Code a man is convinced his teacher discovered a secret code in a series of children’s books. Chief among my inspirations for this was Masquerade, an illustrated storybook published in August 1979 that was to become the source of an international scandal.

The man behind the craze, quirky English artist Kit Williams, devised a beautiful coffee-table book whose story spilled out into a real-life treasure hunt. Readers were invited to scour 16 elaborate drawings that told a mystical, folksy tale, for clues to where Williams had hidden actual treasure: The Golden Hare – an 18-carat, jewelled amulet worth more than £30,000. The concept was deceptively simple: decipher the clues, work out where the prize was buried and dig it up yourself.

Trusted TV journalist, Bamber Gascoigne, the Jeremy Paxman of his day, was enlisted to witness the burial of the casket. He would go on to record his extraordinary experience in a book: Quest for the Golden Hare… because, it’s fair to say, things didn’t go quite as planned. If Masquerade is remembered at all today, it’s not so much for the ingenuity of its clues but for the greed, betrayal and deceit that led the ‘winners’ to claim the prize.

For two and a half years the puzzle remained unsolved. Intrepid readers around the world were gripped by the prospect of finding treasure. At the height of golden hare fever, Williams received more than 100 letters a day and hare-hunters dug speculative holes in public land all over the UK. Until finally, in October 1982, two men wrote to Williams with the correct solution and were declared the winners.

It would later emerge they had arrived at the exact spot - in Ampthill, Bedfordshire – not because they’d solved the clues, but because they’d reverse-engineered information tricked out of Williams’ ex-girlfriend. It was a sour end to an otherwise uplifting adventure that had captured the imaginations of thousands across the globe.

By 2006 the whole episode had largely slipped out of public memory. Masquerade and Quest for the Golden Hare languished on the shelves of second-hand bookshops. Another code had captured the imaginations of a global audience courtesy of Dan Brown.

Just starting out as a screenwriter and searching for inspiration, I used my blue triangular iMac, ADSL internet connection and a web page called Google to revisit my vague childhood memories of an armchair treasure hunt and a golden hare.

I soon stumbled across something extraordinary. A discussion forum for people who, 24 years after the golden hare had been found, were still searching for it. This hardcore group of conspiracy theorists believed the scandal of the fraudulent ‘winners’ was all a hoax to stop people like them searching. Meanwhile, they reasoned, the treasure was still out there, waiting to be found.

They swapped hints and tips, reinforced their convictions and encouraged each other to keep chasing the dream. One forum member claimed that thanks to his decades-long obsession with finding the hare, his wife had divorced him. Only then did he question the time he’d dedicated to it – and still didn’t abandon the search.

Intrigued, I was also unnerved by the extent to which Masquerade had gripped these people in a debilitating compulsion, people who must have been vulnerable to obsession. I didn’t return to the chatroom. On starting research for The Twyford Code thirteen years later, I couldn’t find it. To this day I wonder if there are people out there, still hunting the hare…

So, I had to decide what form The Twyford Code would take and it crossed my mind that into this adventure tale of illiterate former prisoner Steve Smith, I could incorporate a real-life treasure hunt. What a fabulous way to engage your readers! Give them an interactive activity, an immersive puzzle and a prize. A Pokemon Go for the book world… in so many ways it was a good idea. And yet, the debacle of Masquerade is a cautionary tale. The way it ended overshadowed what was an original, inspired idea that fired imaginations and brought families together. Kit Williams ended up living as a recluse. How would I feel if a treasure hunt I set up was won fraudulently? Rotten. Would I have been happy seeing people obsessed with it, the way the members of that forum were? No.

Instead, I’ve kept The Twyford Code firmly between the pages of the story. However, in tribute to Masquerade, Steve encounters two characters who are still chasing the Golden Hare. Of all the episodes in the book, you’d never guess this one was inspired by real life!

The Tywford Code published by Viper, January 13, 2022 - Hbk £14.99

Read Stephen Thornley's book review here

Janice Hallet

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