“The Appeal” by Janice Hallett is a mystery in epistolary format. I wasn’t sure that this book, written with no narrative — just emails, text messages, transcripts of phone messages and police interviews, would be engaging. My fear that I wouldn’t connect with the writing and the story were completely unfounded. Within the first few pages, I was fascinated by the characters, the setting, and the mystery. In fact, while we often have novels with unreliable narrators or characters who are not as they first appear, in this mystery we don’t have anyone’s narration to rely on. We must rely on the words of the characters themselves as they reveal who they are and what they think of other characters. While we know up front that this is a murder mystery, the actual murder doesn’t occur until almost 3/4 of the way into the book; but there are other questions—other mysteries—that appear almost from the very beginning.
We observe the British culture and its embedded class structure as the community comes together. One of the characters comments about the group, “…they’re an insular bunch. Repressed, judgmental—and they don’t like strangers.” Several of the characters are wealthy and own what seems to be the local manor home, which has a golf course and is called The Grange. The owners, Martin and Helen Hayward, sponsor the local acting group, The Fairway Players. While Martin directs the plays, Helen is the leading lady. Always. The others defer to these two and their extended family because of their success and their stance in the community.
There are many characters to keep track of, and Hallett kindly gives us a list of names and descriptions. The action centers around Martin and Helen, their children Paige and James and their spouses Glen and Olivia, close friend Sarah-Jane MacDonald and her family, and Isabel Beck, a nurse who joined The Fairway Players. Peripherally, we meet Poppy, the daughter of Paige and James, who is being treated for brain cancer. Raising money for that treatment is an important part of the story and becomes part of the mystery.
Hallett does a fabulous job sharing insights into the character traits of the characters through their correspondence. We see what they write, and we also see what others write about them. It’s easy to peg Isabel as someone who is very insecure and awed by the Haywards and their social status. She is desperate for some attention but seems to have no idea how to behave at times. We also meet Sam and Kel, a married couple who were overseas in Africa working for Doctors Without Borders. They recently returned to the UK under what we learn are suspicious circumstances. They are both an integral part of the mystery as is their connection to the brother of the doctor who is treating the Haywards’ granddaughter for her cancer.
As the cover states, there are fifteen suspects in the eventual murder. However, a good part of the mystery for much of the book is wondering who will be murdered. There are so many choices, and—dare I say—so many who might be considered deserving of murder. We learn about the characters and their peccadilloes, and thanks to the lists, we can keep them straight. However, towards the end of the novel, the mystery gets a bit confusing. Perhaps my quick-paced reading made it more difficult for me to remember some of the clues that are referenced at that point because also central to the story are three lawyers. One is worried that the wrong person was accused and convicted of the crime, and he is asking his two assistants to try to figure it all out. He knows what he suspects, but he wants to know if they come to the same conclusion as well, before he files an appeal. Thus the title of the novel. He presents his assistants with questions to answer, and that’s where readers will be motivated to go back through the “evidence” to try to ferret out the answers.
It’s a fascinating story, thrilling and complex. My suggestion would be to bookmark the list of names to make it easier to refer back when a new name pops up. By the end, we realize that there is one character who is a hero, one who has been duped, several who are truly reprehensible, and many good people. But Hallett keeps those answers close to her vest until the very end. Justice is served.
Please note: This review was first posted on Bookreporter.com.