This is my usual reaction to having just read a modern mystery novel which has received a ridiculous amount of hype:
So many times I have gone into reading these books optimistic and excited, to end up finishing them jaded, frustrated and rather cynical.
Consequently, scepticism is my standard response to modern mysteries which are being raved about on Facebook and Twitter, with grand claims of the author being the next Agatha Christie and have thousands of 5-star reviews on Goodreads, (especially when this is before the book has even been published). If one piques my interest, I then usually wait until one of my hardier blogging friends has read it, to see if it is worthwhile getting.
Today’s read was one of those rare titles which caught my eye. Moreover, it had garnered positive comments from my sister and my friends: JJ (The Invisible Event), Carol and Brad (Ah Sweet Mystery Blog). Now the reading tastes of these four when it comes to mystery novels is by no means similar, so in my thinking if four very different readers enjoyed it, then maybe, just maybe, I would too. Let’s find out…
‘ONE MURDER. FIFTEEN SUSPECTS. CAN YOU UNCOVER THE TRUTH?
There is a mystery to solve in the sleepy town of Lower Lockwood. It starts with the arrival of two secretive newcomers, and ends with a tragic death. Roderick Tanner QC has assigned law students Charlotte and Femi to the case. Someone has already been sent to prison for murder, but he suspects that they are innocent. And that far darker secrets have yet to be revealed… Throughout the amateur dramatics society’s disastrous staging of All My Sons and the shady charity appeal for a little girl’s medical treatment, the murderer hid in plain sight. The evidence is all there, waiting to be found. But will Charlotte and Femi solve the case? Will you?’
I have to admit I was a little disorientated when I first started the novel, as the opening exchanges between Femi and Charlotte were perhaps a little opaque. Femi’s language in particular contains some jargon: ‘All we’ll have is a spectrum of interpretation to examine, analyse and frame into something solid.’ However, what I didn’t do before beginning the book, was the read the blurb. I don’t always do this as sometimes they reveal a bit too much about the plot, but on this occasion I think the blurb is a good thing to read first, since it provides a useful context for the role of the framing narrative involving Femi and Charlotte.
But aside from this initial confusion, the only befuddlement and mystification remaining in the narrative was all part of the novel’s enjoyment.
As others have mentioned before me, Hallett is not the first to create a mystery comprised only of written communications between different people. Dorothy L. Sayers, aided by Robert Eustace published the epistolary novel, The Documents in the Case in 1930 and Philip Macdonald released The Maze in 1932, which is comprised with the evidence given at an inquest. Letters also form a third of the narrative in Macdonald’s The Crime Conductor (1931) and there are the crime dossiers constructed by Dennis Wheatley. Structuring your novel this way is ambitious as you have to balance creating realistic missives between your characters, with making such communications include enough detail to tell the story coherently. There is also the risk of your text becoming quite dry due to the potential for reduced characterisation. From the reviews I have seen of The Maze, this is a pitfall Macdonald does not avoid. Sayers’ effort is decidedly more character driven, yet in comparing it to Hallett’s book it works with a smaller cast and includes a more streamlined murder. Both books though do not present the reader with a murder straight away.
In turning my mind to the earlier examples of this type of narrative I began to wonder if in some ways modern communication methods – emails, texts – are better suited to the creation of an epistolary crime novel, due to their fragmented nature. The messages sent between the characters are not always that long, (in comparison to novels in which letters are sent), and I felt the shorter pithier approach actually worked really well for establishing and developing the fictional world of The Appeal and the sinister secrets and machinations lurking beneath the surface. It takes a while for the overall narrative to emerge, as the fragments of daily life build up, but Hallett wisely starts throwing in seeds of dissent and suspicion early on. In addition, the framing narrative of Femi and Charlotte reading and commenting on the case notes, emails and texts is a strength of the story, as I felt they provided a further lens through which to filter the information and it means that the reader can catch up on any ideas they did not notice themselves. However, I would not say their sections are mere cheat sheets for the reader, as their discussion sometimes contributes a red herring.
With an epistolary novel narrative voice is key, especially when you have as large a cast of characters as Hallett does. I think the author handles this aspect of the book effectively, as I felt in a short space of time several distinct voices emerge, even if they only contribute a small occasional message or two. Furthermore, I felt that the emails did not come across as sounding forced or artificial. There was a real sense of verisimilitude and there are lines which will remind us of people we have encountered in real life. For example, in her response to hearing the news of Poppy’s dire ill health, Sarah Jane Macdonald writes to the family:
‘Dearest Helen, Martin and family, I am in shock. Poor Poppy. My heart goes out to you all. Send my love to Helen and Paige. Assure them that if they need anything, however small, you know where we are. I remember when Harley fell off his bike and had a severe concussion. It was the worst few hours of my life, so I know how you must be feeling.’
You could say she starts out well before she veers into that classic move of using someone else’s pain to talk about your own, usually more minor, experiences. It reminded me of the times people have said to me that they know how I must feel with my health conditions because they once had a bad headache…
Documents do not give the full story or the complete account of an experience, although they provide tantalising hints of what might be taking place off the page. There are always gaps and omissions, yet in this mystery story these silences are crucial. They often speak volumes, and the reader is advised to note who doesn’t speak, as well as who does and what they say. These silences put me in mind of negative space artwork, which for those unfamiliar with the term is:
‘Negative space, in art, is the space around and between the subject(s) of an image. Negative space may be most evident when the space around a subject, not the subject itself, forms an interesting or artistically relevant shape, and such space occasionally is used to artistic effect as the “real” subject of an image.’ (Wikipedia)
For me, what wasn’t being said, what wasn’t being asked and who wasn’t speaking for themselves formed a fundamental part of the picture of what was going on in the story. It makes you keenly aware of how your impressions of some characters is entirely based on what others say about them. You begin to notice the tone used in an email or the connotations a particular word has and because the emails are very comprehensive you can see when one character is being disingenuous. For example, James needs to find someone to fill a particular role in the play and he asks his two preferred candidates. However, neither can help so instead he has to fall back on someone else. Yet when he communicates with them, he acts as though they were his first choice: ‘Dearest Issy, I thought to myself ‘Who could possibly play Lydia?’ and you were the first in mind.’
As the reader races through the book, an accumulation effect occurs, with various strands of the narrative emerging. Initial success in the fundraising, rather than gladdening the reader’s heart, makes them worry and wait for when it all goes wrong, because it has to, right? For me there was a growing sense of tragedy. Or to use a simile, the threads of this story are like a lot of cars all racing towards a central collision point and you don’t know what the fall out will be, who will survive the wreckage. When this moment is reached, when the murder occurs, it felt like a sucker punch, (which is a good thing by the way!)
Reading this book made me feel like I was at the theatre, in which you become so engrossed in what is going on that you forget that there are an additional two pairs on eyes on the information you are taking in. Given the length of the book, the author wisely disperses new plot twists and turns effectively without revealing too soon which path the overall narrative will take, and this is helped by the fact that actions often have more than one interpretation.
Money is arguably one of the driving forces in the text and Hallett skilfully weaves it into her narrative and I love how one of its effects is to reveal the grubbier, mercenary and less sympathetic side of Poppy’s family, such as when the grandfather of Poppy charges £20,000 room hire for the fundraising event being held to raise money for Poppy’s treatment.
Money and the perceived need for it also leads to a seemingly innocent white lie and I love how this small detail mushrooms and spirals out of control. It is a problem which keeps popping up, it is one the family can’t shake off and then there’s the transition point when they seemingly don’t want to do so anymore and instead want to use it for their own narrative ends. This aspect of the book reminded me of the brilliant suspense novel, The Little Lie (1968) by Jean Potts.
This novel incorporates some difficult themes, yet I really enjoyed how the text does not depict them in clear black and white terms. The appropriateness of charity is a good example of this, as at one point in the tale, the author has a character write this to a colleague:
‘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.’
I found this an engaging way to explore this type of topic, turning things on their head and such passages are very interesting to return to once you have reached the denouement. The self-righteous tone for instance becomes highly problematic and complicated if you do so. Nevertheless, I enjoyed how the narrative did not type cast Poppy’s family as saints or simply figures to be pitied.
Another facet of the novel, which is far from black and white, are the characters and very often they are not entirely who they seem to be and characters who are acting for the greater good, may in fact be difficult people to deal with. One character which stood out for me was Issy, who enters the novel as a modern-day Miss Bates (see Jane Austen’s Emma (1815)) and yet her ultimate role in the tale becomes far more complex and insidious. In addition, her attempt to take notes for a committee meeting are hilarious. In my notes for this review, I simply put – ‘LOL’!
With such a mystery a lot rides on the solution. If the answer to the murder is that nothing of what you have read is involved and the killer was a random serial killer, then understandably you would be rather cheesed off. Thankfully that does not happen here, and the author delivers a satisfying solution. Before this point though the reader is encouraged into an armchair detective role by one of the emails in the framing narrative containing 5 questions that need to be answered in order to solve the case. Moreover, we are witnesses to Femi and Charlotte as they debate various aspects of the narrative and I found it interesting to see that they were more sceptical of some of the ideas espoused by a particular character, and I was left wondering if I had been taken in by them too much. I thought this type of dialogic engagement with the text enjoyable without feeling like a chore. I pieced together quite a few elements of the solution and anticipated one of the bigger twists, but there was also a pleasing number of things which totally eclipsed me. The reader wants to have some success but not too much that they think the puzzle was too easy to solve. This book balances these two aspects brilliantly.
In keeping with the moral ambiguity raised elsewhere in the text the ending is engaging in the way it does and does not parcel out justice. It was also interesting to see how the ending of the case effected the people involved and an eerie comedic effect is caused by the way one character seems to have learnt absolutely nothing about themselves through the entire experience. They seem destined to repeat the cycle they have just gone through.
So all in all this is a theatrical mystery like no other, which includes some dynamite-like topics, (such as a child diagnosed with cancer), without becoming maudlin nor tritely sentimental. This is a mystery which does not pull its punches, yet it draws you in rather than repels you. The Appeal is a mystery novel which truly deserves its hype, which believe me is a very rare thing indeed! I can’t wait to read the author’s second book which comes out in January. Like with my earlier review this week of Gwen Bristow and Bruce Manning’s The Invisible Host (1930), I urge you to rush out immediately and buy or borrow this book, if you haven’t already read it!