The Appeal by Janice Hallett (2021)

20th October 2022

In the crowded market for murder mysteries, The Appeal has attracted a great deal of critical attention – and commercial success – for its highly unusual method of presenting the components of the narrative in order that the reader can attempt to arrive at the solution.

In the small town of Lockwood, the “alpha family” is that of the late middle-aged couple Martin Hayward and Helen Grace-Hayward and it is they who are at the heart of the two immediate strands of the story. On the one hand, they are the leading lights – as producer/director and lead actress – of The Fairway Players, the local amateur dramatic society. In addition, Martin has launched the eponymous appeal to raise funds so that his cancer-stricken grand-daughter – the two-year old Poppy – can have access to a hugely expensive course of drugs that can only be sourced from America. The remainder of the book’s dramatis personae are involved with one or other – and usually both – of these overlapping storylines.

The novel’s unusual presentation of the available evidence – the first tranche of which extends to two-thirds of the way through the book – is in the form of a voluminous (though incomplete) collection of e-mails, texts and other miscellaneous notes sent between the various characters in the two-month period up to the day of the final dress rehearsal of The Fairway Players’ summer production of Arthur Miller’s All My Sons. It is at this point that the death occurs: possibly a murder, though it could also have been an accident or a suicide.

The evidence has been collated by Roderick Tanner QC, the Senior Partner in a law firm (whose interest in the case is later revealed). He has passed it all on to two of his bright junior members of staff – Olufemi (Femi) Hassan and Charlotte Holroyd – with the instruction to “see what you think”. The reader is effectively a collaborator with Femi and Charlotte, as they examine the evidence afresh, with the added benefit of seeing what their own texts to each other reveal about the (variable) direction of their thinking.

Once we have ploughed through this initial collection of evidence, there is a breakpoint at which – usefully for the reader – Femi and Charlotte summarise the various possible suspects and motives as well as outlining several alternative theories about what happened. They also helpfully provide a full list of the relevant individuals. At this point, the already complicated network of possibilities is given a series of additional twists when Tanner sends further information to Femi and Charlotte.

Janice Hallett draws on the full set of components in the murder mystery toolkit. It doesn’t take the reader long to suspect that there is some sort of a fraud attached to the appeal, but who is defrauding whom is not straightforward. Several individuals have curious backstories elsewhere (for example, involving medical malpractice or as aid workers in Africa). There are instances of characters impersonating other characters – one such deception was very neatly done and completely fooled me, though there was a clue in plain sight. One of the e-mail correspondents doesn’t exist at all…

Hallett skilfully allows the e-mail correspondence to reveal something of the (apparent) personalities of the individual characters; we can identify the shifty, the needy, the acerbic, the nosey, the aggressive… She also has fun with the medium itself, most notably – and seriously – in the way in which inaccurate Chinese whispers between the gossips lead to the unfortunate spread of falsehoods. As an aside, Tanner’s incompetence in using even the most straightforward WhatsApp technology is hilarious (if rather close to home).

As usual, the first task of the reader is to identify who the unfortunate victim will be. This is not too difficult: there is a relatively limited short-list to start with and this is followed by a growing number of possible motives for the victim’s demise.

But the guilty party/parties? It is with the denouement that I had the most difficulty. It involves another impersonation (which I thought just about plausible, if unlikely) as well as the particular behaviour of one of the other characters (about which I was less convinced). That said, there is a delicious little coda presented by Hallett to the reader.

Some of the reviews of The Appeal have fallen back on the clichéd description of “unputdownable”. I found myself going in the other direction. Perhaps it reflects my general preference when reading fiction but, in this case, I certainly benefited from consuming the book in relatively short chunks and then taking my time to consider what I had learned and what it might actually imply. Each to their own.

And All My Sons? As one of the Fairway Players texts, “That play is the most depressing we’ve ever staged. How is that making anyone feel better?” A reasonable question, given the circumstances being faced by the theatre troupe. However, by the end of the novel, those familiar with Miller’s play will recognise that Hallett’s inclusion of it in her story is not an accident.

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