The Appeal (2021) by Janice Hallett

As discussed, it is best you know nothing before you read the enclosed.

Olufemi Hassan and Charlotte Holroyd, two junior members of a law firm, have been given a task by Roderick Tanner, a senior partner. Read through a series of messages between members of a community, a group brought together initially by a drama production of Arthur Miller’s All My Sons and then a charity appeal when the child of one member of the group contracts cancer.

As the messages go on, it becomes clear that there are significant tensions within the group, and things are conspiring towards a disaster. But why have Femi and Charlotte been asked to read this material? Can it all be trusted? The truth will need to be sorted from the lies – but there is far more going on than either of the women expect…

The Appeal has been sitting on my shelf for a while, for a couple of reasons. It’s been trumpeted as “a modern Agatha Christie” and we all know where that usually leads. Also, a number of my blogging buddies and book group have been praising it to the nines and we NEVER agree on a single book, so as everyone seemed to love it, the conclusion I came to was that I’d be the exception. But sometimes – just sometimes – you can be surprised.

It is indeed “a modern Agatha Christie”. It doesn’t bear the slightest resemblance on the surface, consisting of multiple emails interspersed with WhatsApp chats every now and then between the lawyers to draw attention to some points that the reader might have missed (but bear in mind that there are points that they miss too). There is a lot going on here, with most of the cast keeping a secret or three, but everything is laid out for the reader to completely miss. At first glance, I was concerned that I would have to keep too many characters in my head – the blurb cites fifteen suspects, which is a few too many for an old duffer like me – but it was never a problem. Janice Hallett breathes life into all of them with a skill that you might not expect from a debut author (although she has written screenplays and stageplays before).

It builds to the murder nicely, with a question for a while as to exactly who is going to be murdered and then who the killer was, why someone confessed to it and which of the many presented motives (if any) was the actual one. The reader is given some nudges as they are given questions to answer by the author/senior partner, which actually puts it closer to Ellery Queen with its challenge to the reader than Christie. Regardless as to who is being emulated, though, this is a masterclass in how to write an original mystery while remaining true to the tropes of the Golden Age.

I could query exactly what the senior partner is trying to achieve as he seems to know what is going on, for the most part – his questions can only be asked by someone who knows most of the truth – and there is never really a good reason given for the omission of one character’s messages, other than to obscure exactly what they are up to. I could query that, but I’m not going to as they are choices made to service the plot of one of the most enjoyable and gripping book that I’ve read in an age. I really thought this month’s Puzzly was going to be dead easy as I’d already read the best book of the year this month. Now, however…

So, overall, don’t be put off by the odd format of the book. This is a must-read for any mystery fans.

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