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!
A good Post-2010 Crime Fiction Bingo card, too: