The epistolary novel has become a popular trend mirroring the many options we have for communicating these days. But I’m not sure I’ve come across one that’s a murder mystery before. The Appeal deals with a murder that has been tried in court, a perpetrator found guilty, the case supposedly done and dusted. Fearing a miscarriage of justice, Roderick Tanner, QC, calls upon two articled clerks, Charlotte and Femi, to plough through the evidence to try and establish what really happened.
The story is told via this correspondence between suspects, a chronological collection of mostly emails between witnesses as well as texts between the legal team. Throw in a few police interviews and newspaper articles and you’ve got an interesting mix.
We don’t know who was killed until late in the story, but Hallett builds a picture of a small community with, at its heart, an alpha family – Martin and Grace Hayward who own the Grange and manage the Fairway Players, an amateur theatre group. They have all the status that goes with their stately home. Grace Hayward is a former actress who steals every scene when on stage and Martin directs.
Among the players, Issy Beck writes a lot of emails, cheery little notes of support particularly to her new colleague at the hospital, Samantha and her husband Kel Greenwood. The Greenwoods are recently back in England after years working with aid agencies in Africa and there are hints they left under a cloud. But Issy, lonely, mousy and lacking any kind of standing with her colleagues or community, is determined to be Sam’s friend, encouraging her and Kel to audition for the new play.
But barely have the Greenwoods joined the Fairway Players and the troupe started learning their lines than Martin Hayward drops the bombshell that their grand-daughter Poppy has a rare form of brain cancer. The emails track the huge support the players and other locals show the Haywards, and suddenly the story is more about the massive fundraising that takes place to pay for ground-breaking treatment from the United States. A lot of money is involved and potential complications of trust and misuse are thrown into the mix.
Janice Hallett does a terrific job of evoking the personalities and motives of her characters through what they write to each other. The confusion and questions Femi and Charlotte reveal in their text messages to each other mirror what you feel as a reader, but slowly it all begins to make sense, answering the five main questions Tanner asks of his clerks. Police interview transcripts and reports, oddly enough, don’t shed a lot of light as people are obviously lying or haven’t a clue, which makes the book seem more realistic somehow.
I wasn’t sure I would have picked up a mystery written in this format if I hadn’t read glowing reviews of The Appeal. Through Hallett’s skill, instead of hampering the reader, the emails, texts and sundry correspondence cohere to create a gripping page-turner and I whipped through the novel, eager to see if the things I’d noticed were as important as I thought they might be. I came away thinking the book was really very clever and very well done. A four out of five read from me.