Do not adjust your sets, The Appeal (2021) by Janice Hallett is a modern crime novel that does not contain an apparent impossibility…and yet here I am reading and reviewing it. I was struck by the idea behind this: essentially an update of The Documents in the Case (1930) by Dorothy L. Sayers and Robert Eustace, The Maze, a.k.a. Persons Unknown (1932) by Philip MacDonald, and the Dennis Wheatley “murder dossier” books that began with Murder Off Miami (1936), in which the story of a murder is told through emails, text messages, interview transcripts, and more. And as updates go, this is a very good one indeed — very cleverly written, very easy to read.
AmDram group The Fairway Players have just put on Blithe Spirit when, as attention moves on to their summer staging of All My Sons by Arthur Miller, one family receives a thunderbolt: two year-old Poppy Reswick, granddaughter of Players chairman Martin and his leading lady wife Helen, is diagnosed with a rare form of brain cancer. Research in the US has apparently unearthed a new wonder-drug for the condition, but with a price tag of £250,000 per dose, and up to four treatments needed, the odds of Poppy receiving it seem terrifyingly slim. And so, through various means of communication, a picture begins to emerge of a community rallying round to do whatever it can to raise the money while continuing to rehearse the play. And, against this background, the various secrets, lies, and relationships among the community crystalise, with at least a couple of them clearly hiding something…
The missives here are an incomplete record of what passed between various members of the community in the run up to a murder of one of the Players, collated — as the title suggests — as the basis for an appeal for whoever has been found guilty. You’re not given the identity of the victim until over halfway through (shades here of Pick Your Victim (1946) by Patricia McGerr, among others) and a lot of fun is to be had in speculating who the axe is going to fall upon — it becomes more obvious as you progress, but I was looking at completely the wrong person for about a third of the book. The killer, or assumed killer, is not named until slightly later and this, along with a sudden dumping of information that evidently could not be communicated through texts and emails, is one of the few unavoidable false notes: if you wanted the two trainee barristers reviewing the case to have the best perspective on it, you’d certainly tell them some of this up front.
However, Hallett does a wonderful job for the most part in doling out information around the gaps provided in her narrative — telling you just enough to intrigue and rarely overdoing the explanations once the events become clear. The relaxed nature of these communications means there’s ample room for humour, too, like when it is revealed that one of the community suffers from coprophobia and Kevin MacDonald texts his wife Sarah-Jane “Fear of shit? That’s ridiculous. How does she live?”. I loved, too, the little humorous touches: when Poppy’s mother has to drop out of the play and outsider Issy emails Martin to ask if she can have the vacant role, we first see two replies from other members turning down Martin’s offer of the part before seeing his email to Issy saying that she was the only one he thought of when the role became available; or when a graphic designer lazily scans in a rough sketch provded as an idea of an emblem to put on t-shirts and merchandise, and the story is quickly concocted that Poppy herself drew it.
Other threads also wind their way through this main story, since several characters have events in their pasts that they wish to remain hidden, and passing references only heighten the intrigue. These don’t necessarily always pay off — would Sam Greenwood’s reason for leaving Médecins Sans Frontièrs in the Central African Republic really be that shameful, that much of a Damoclean sword over her head? — but again they’re worked in with a clever subtlety, and add spice to an interesting mix of clashing possibilities we’re tantalisingly left to cobble together for ourselves: whether Dr. Tish Bhatoa be trusted given the communications involving her elderly parents, Sam’s fledging friendship with Claudia D’Souza being kept semi-secret from the clingy Issy, precisely how much money has been raised and how much is needed, and precisely what the deal is with Lydia Drake and Clive Handler, who both separately seem to have simple solutions to the problem of raising the necessary funds.
So, yes, there’s a lot going on, and for the most part the various elements are easy to distinguish, and how one event affects another is easy to see. Less successful, and perhaps the biggest overall problem, is that this form of telling a story inevitably strips the individual characters of distinction after a while, and in such a large cast — two “lists of people in the story” are provided, the first featuring 34 names, the second a staggering eighty-two — it honestly becomes difficult to keep up. Issy, Martin, Claudia, and Sarah-Jane are about the only ones who emerge with any shape to them, and while some messages add wonderfully to the verisimilitude — one of the elderly women sending staggeringly blunt replies is good for a chuckle or two — they bring nothing to the narrative and, given the framing, do not need to be included. Too much attention given to events of of no consequence means that certain strands go nowhere (Jackie, who’s off travelling, is left in something of a bind that is unresolved if memory serves…) and, come the multiple possible solutions brainstormed towards the end, it’s difficult to remember who some of these people even are.
However, much of what’s here is very successful: the structural games played with each letter from barrister Roderick Tanner, QC (“[G]oing forward you must ask: who already knows [the victim] is dead and who doesn’t?”), the ways different faces are presented to different people depending on their perceived relationship:
These are the people you have to see in private practice: the epitome of white entitlement. They think the earth should stop turning for their child to be cured. It doesn’t occur to them no one else is as committed to their family as they are. If they’d seen what we have, they’d be grateful for the many privileges they not only take for granted, but demand, with no sense of their own insignificance in the world. They could afford these drugs if they sold their assets, but they are affronted by the very idea of paying for healthcare and prefer others to foot the bill.
…and even the classic mystery trope of finding the guilty person based on rationale that it would be a spoiler to divulge here. The solution, too, is very clever — Hallett should have had more faith that the necessary events were hidden well, and didn’t need so many emails from tertiary-and-lower characters to hide what was going on. With a bit of a trim, this would be hard to fault, and having borrowed my copy from the library I fully intend to buy one of my own so that I can pick through it in the months and years ahead. A wonderfully smart, urbane, and neatly-observed mystery that plays the game well and establishes Hallett as a name to watch. Whatever she’s doing next, here’s hoping it arrives soon!
14 thoughts on “#821: The Appeal (2021) by Janice Hallett”
I felt exactly as you do! My brother-in-law who doesn’t read much at all, mentioned it to me (‘you know all these crime books, you must know this one’), and I had never heard of it. I absolutely ripped through it, and enjoyed it very much. Yes, too much periphery, and actually I did not find the solution satisfying – but it made me laugh & kept me guessing,and I will certainly be looking out for her next one.
Hallett seems to have done that rae things of pleasing the classicists and the modernists…no mean feat for her first novel!
And, yes, the prospect of future novels from this course is a very exciting one. I shall await developments,
Thanks JJ for the review – sounds like I need to get my hands on this book sooner rather than later! Is it a book I can get via my local Kindle store – or does the ‘murder dossier’ format require a hard copy?
I dunno how the ebook version is formatted, but there’s no need to flip back and forth to re-review evidence or anything like that — it can be read as a “normal” narrative would, so there’s no disadvantage to an ebook, certainly.
Whichever format you decide to go for, I hope you enjoy it.
I was intrigued by this book and have been wondering for a while whether or not I should give it a go. Having been burnt by too many modern mysteries which have been labelled as Christie-esque, I was somewhat on the fence. Whilst this is not a glowing review, the weaknesses mentioned do not seem to make it impossible to enjoy the story nevertheless. By the sounds of it, is it more in style of Philip Macdonald’s book than Dorothy L. Sayers’? Sayers, from recollection, is more relationship driven I would say.
Oh, The Maze is certainly much drier — there’s a clear focus on the relationships and interactions between the characters, and a very clear importance on that element of things being key.
To say too much wouls be to risk spoiling some aspect, I’m sure, but there’s certainly more emotional involvement in this than the transcripts of the MacDonald — I mention that one becuase thi is similarly epistolary. And I don’t really think anyone would write a modern crime novel as divested of emotion as The Maze, would they? That would be an interesting proposition…
Grumble, grumble, grumble . . . another book I’ve never heard of. Fingers crossed that The Book Depository comes through this time because it cost twice as much on Amazon. And is it too “British” for me to get? Will it drive me bah-nawww-nahs??.
I see Richard Osman has a second coming out. Watch that group live to be 150!
I’d never heard of this one either, until someone told me about it…that’s how hearing about stuff works, isn’t it?
And, no, if I can cope with the Americanisms of Cornell Woolrich and Dashiell Hammett, you can cope with the Britishness of Hallett — there’s none of Osman’s winking references to Jaffa Cakes or Boots the chemist. This certainly has that advantage over the Osman, and that’s a good thing as far as international markets go 🙂
I do enjoy a bit of mystery when it comes to who the victim is going to be. Make no mistake, I prefer my books to start out with the murder immediately occurring or being stumbled on to (a la The Ten Teacups), but if I’m going to have to wait it out for half of the book then I’d rather be surprised about who gets it. Not only does it create a bit of mystery, but some authors can really plot it out to where you just can’t imagine any of the characters getting it. The unknown victim does seem a bit rare, but of course that could because I read all of these reviews and maybe that sets my expectations.
I love not knowing who’s gonna get kllled. I agree that it’s great opening with a corpse on page 1, but where later murders are concerned I always try to maintain an open mind and outlook and do my best not to jump ahead in thinking about such things too analyticially.
This is in part why I’ve stopped reading reviews and synopses of books ahead of reading them — occasionally you get absolute howlers (like that edition of Till Death Do Us Part that gives away the midway twist on the back cover) and it’s much more fun seeing it all develop in camera as it were. I don’t read lists of characters provided at the start of books for the same reason — if they’re not made memorable in the context of the story, I don’t care <iwho they are and no list is gonna change that.
Pingback: The Appeal (2021) by Janice Hallett – crossexaminingcrime
Is she the next Christie? I would say no, based on this book, but a very interesting debut anyway. I don’t know if I missed some bits, but while the solution makes sense, and there are some nice deduction based on subtle hints earlier on, I did not feel the eventual solution had the elegant inevitability that Christie can deliver. I also felt the book was too long.
The framing with the lawyers (or paralegals or something) reviewing the messages felt unrealistic.
Yeah, it’s too early to tell how Hallett might compare to Christie, and at this stage in Agatha’s career even she wouldn’t have been seen as the force she went on to be.
I’m with you about the inevitability of the ending, in part because of the sheer number of people involved and possible combinations that allows. But this is easily one of the best puzzlish debuts of recent years, and I’m intrigued to see where Hallett ends up. A bit like Stuart Turton, there could be good things in her future — let’s hope so, for all our benefits!