Janice Hallett’s recently released book, The Appeal, arrived on bookshelves in the U.K. in 2021. Described by the Sunday Times as “A Modern Agatha Christie”, Hallett has created this twisty murder mystery through notably unconventional methods of writing. Hannah Walton-Hughes reviews.
As both a reader and a writer of murder mysteries/detective fiction, I am always excited when a new book of this genre catches my eye. So, on a Sunday in Nottingham, I walked out of Waterstones, four new books in my arms, The Appeal among them.
And what a new book it is! I have never read a crime novel like it. The story is told entirely retrospectively, through a selection of emails, text messages, interview transcripts, and crime documents, relating to the fifteen suspects. Two law students, Charlotte and Femi, have been assigned to the case by Roderick Tanner QC, the original prosecutor on the case. All Charlotte and Femi, and the readers, are told, is that somebody has already been wrongly arrested for the crime.
We often only get one side of the conversations
The vagueness of this novel is something you can either love or hate. Several of the characters, including the eventual murder victim, are never actually heard from; we often only get one side of the conversations. Whilst in conventional crime novels, the murder happens near the beginning, and various clues are revealed along the way, in The Appeal, we are not told exactly what has happened until the very end- we are given snippets of events and speculation, nothing more.
The whole story is centred around two key events: drama rehearsals for the community’s production of the play All My Sons, and a very ambiguous charity appeal for Martin’s granddaughter’s cancer treatment. As readers, we are left wondering as to the significance of these two events, in piecing together the truth of the crime.
Whilst you would think that by using such brief and impersonal method of narration, we would be left with extremely limited and one-dimensional views of the suspects, you could not be more wrong. Each of the characters are highly intriguing in their own way. From the extremely clingy and neurotic Isabel Beck to the no-nonsense Sarah MacDonald, to the seemingly good-hearted director, Martin Hayward, everyone has their secrets. It gets to the stage where you know the characters so well, that you begin to develop assumptions as to what their emails/messages will look like. However, still you are very often surprised.
The only part about this book that lets it down somewhat is the ending
Whilst the lack of convention can be slightly jarring and makes the book hard to follow at times, it is certainly something that will distinguish Hallett from other crime writers. The only part about this book that lets it down somewhat is the ending. Without doubt, it is a brilliant twist, but it leaves the reader feeling as though we have arrived there too quickly, and I at least was left wanting to know more. I was disappointed to turn over and find blank pages.
Overall, this is a fantastic book that I recommend highly. It combines cosy crime with a real intellectual challenge for the reader. That being said, you can choose to not try and work it out for yourself, and just swim along with the plot, and rely on Charlotte and Femi to work it out. However you choose to read it, I guarantee you a thoroughly satisfying and surprising experience.
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