Voracious readers know there are many excellent books released every year, but that finding something that has never been done before is rare. Janice Hallett’s The Appeal may fit that bill. Certainly we have seen epistolary novels and works that incorporate email communications, but I can’t think of a work that does it quite in this way. Janice Hallett almost changes the structure of the novel to lead readers down a thrilling and convoluted path.
One the very first page of The Appeal, readers find out that two individuals have been assigned the task of weeding through the evidence in a court proceeding in order to discover new avenues of exploration. Readers know from the jacket copy that someone was murdered and someone was convicted, but the lawyer hiring these individuals is convinced the wrong person is in jail. By extension, it is almost as though the reader is being “hired” to examine the evidence. In an effort to not interfere with the cognitive process, that is all that is told to the individuals (and the reader) – meaning we don’t know who died, when, or even how. And most certainly, we don’t know why!
What follows for the next three-quarters of the novel is a litany of email communications between the dozens of people who are involved. The emails are presented in roughly chronological order (though the evidence only includes what was recoverable or deemed “relevant,” so in many cases, it is simply one side of each conversation), so while there is technically not actual narrative, it is possible to piece together a timeline of what happened over the course of a few months in this British village.
Without being too much of a spoiler, the action is trigged by the arrival of a new couple in town, who are quickly invited to be part of the local theater troupe as they are just about to begin auditions for their production of Arthur Miller’s All My Sons. At the same time, the family that owns the theater is dealing with the recent diagnosis of a rare brain cancer in their young daughter.
The title of the novel, The Appeal, serves two purposes. Obviously, if this lawyer is correct and the wrong person is in jail, a court appeal will be initiated. But the plot also revolves around an appeal to the public for donations to help pay for the child’s expensive and experimental medical treatment. How the theater community, the medical community, and the various families involved interact is the subject of the email communications provided. Readers are also presented with the occasional newspaper clippings, social media posts, and other ephemera that exist relating to the case.
The last quarter of the novel consists of the report written by the two investigators after they have finished reading all the same evidence the reader had access to. At this point, the reader can see how many of the countless clues they noticed while wading through the convoluted tangle of partial conversations and other documentation. Trust me when I say that there is more than one mystery going on, so the amount of clues and red herrings is voluminous.
The Appeal benefits from immersive reading, as it can be very difficult to keep all the activity that is happening – and has already happened – at the forefront of one’s mind across an extended period. There are a few points, where the independent investigators will communicate with each other via text message (that the reader has access to.) In those message they recap what they already know (or think they know) about the investigation, so that does help refresh the reader’s memory.
In the end, Janice Hallett has found an innovative way to tell a murder mystery. The element of not knowing who the victim is until almost three-quarters into the book just adds an additional layer of intrigue. The solution is satisfying especially because readers get to witness how keen their eye for detail is – but even if the reader doesn’t “play along,” this case is fascinating enough to keep anyone interested and wondering what exactly happened.
There is not telling what Janice Hallett will offer up next, but I suspect many new fans are waiting to find out. The Appeal is quite a unique debut novel from a talent that seems more than capable of thinking outside the box.