Book Review – The Appeal by Janice Hallett

books, reviews

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Oh, what a difference the right book makes. I’ve been struggling to find the energy to read lately, so things have been taking way longer than they should. Considering I have a lot of books to read to complete my Spell the Month Challenge, it’s a little worrying. When I picked this book up, I was expecting it to take a really long time as it comes in at 400+ pages. It’s been a while since I last read over 300 pages, so I really didn’t think I’d be up for the task. Suprisingly, I managed to finish this in a couple of nights. I just got so into it. I spent all day imagining getting back home to carry on reading it. I was obsessed in a way that I haven’t been in a really long time. It was a good feeling.

I’d seen all sorts of great things about The Appeal before I read it. There was so much hype around its release that I almost didn’t buy it. I’ve been burned too many times by super hyped crime fiction that I just didn’t trust it. Yet, I was so intrigued by the concept that I couldn’t help it. After a youth reading too many Agatha Christie novels, I like to think of myself as an amateur sleuth but, really, how good am I at picking up clues? Janice Hallett’s debut novel seemed like a pretty decent way to give them a test run. The whole concept is that you try and solve the crime as you go along. The book contains all of the relevant evidence in a murder and you have to wade through it all to find out who is guilty. And who wouldn’t get drawn in by a concept like that?

The story takes us to the town of Lockwood and introduces us to the small cast of characters who live there. Small cast being an even more appropriate theme considering the majority of them are connected through an amateur dramatics society. We join the group just after their most recent play has finished and they prepare to tackle their next show. Unfortunately, they are hit with the news that young Poppy Renwick, the founding members’ granddaughter, has a brain tumour and needs life-saving treatment. A treatment that will cost a hell of a lot of money. So the Fairway Players rally together and start fundraising. But is everything as it seems?

When a new couple arrives in town, they join the Players and ingratiate themselves in the community. However, one of the pair, Sam, starts asking a lot of questions. Has she uncovered something dodgy about Poppy’s appeal? And just what is she hiding from her own past? As the weeks go by, tensions among the acting group begin to rise and gossip begins to spread. As the night of the first performance arrives, a body will turn up and somebody will be arrested for murder. But is it the right person? Thankfully, we are provided with every piece of evidence needed to help us solve the case. Can you wade through the cast’s emails and messages to find out what’s going on in Lockwood?

First things first, the premise of this book is absolutely brilliant and really does bring new life into an oversaturated genre. Although, I did find the overreliance on email made it feel very dated. It just didn’t feel natural for people to be sending quite so many emails in this day and age. But that’s only a minor quibble. I thought the format was fantastic and it made the whole book really easy to read. Easy and highly addictive. You want to solve the case which means you need to keep reading. It becomes an obsession. I started to read into every little thing. To the extent that I was trying to link things to the play that the Fairway Players are putting on. I got so carried away with this that I was imagining absolutely wild twists.

Did I solve it? Sort of. I figured out what was going on quite early on but I then kept second-guessing myself. So much so that I ended up coming up with crazy theories. I think part of this is due to my cynicism about contemporary crime writing. It’s also probably just because I was enjoying myself too much. Basically, this is not an unsolvable mystery but it also isn’t incredibly obvious. Something that makes reading it all the more enjoyable. There’s no need to wade through countless emails if the killer is either immediately obvious or so obscure that you can’t even hazard a guess.

There are some aspects that I didn’t quite think worked and some of the characters were a bit disappointing. I wasn’t a fan of some of the forced humour, but it needed a lighter edge somewhere. I thought the framing narrative was interesting and it was fun to see the process of Femi and Charlotte, two law students, to put the evidence together. What I didn’t really enjoy was the awkward WhatsApp chat they had with Roderick Turner QC. It just came down to “old people can’t use technology” humour and I didn’t really care for it. Still, it’s another really minor point and doesn’t distract from the main story. The cast of characters there is vast and, as such, not all of them are fully developed. Although, that is also the point. When solving a crime, you don’t really know anybody, which is why every single word becomes important.

This might not be the perfect crime novel but it’s certainly a strong debut. It was one of the most enjoyable books that I’ve read in a long time and I have a great time reading it. My mother and I don’t often read the same books but I leant this to her as soon as I was done. It’s the kind of book that anyone with an interest in crime fiction should have a go with. If nothing else, it gives you a chance to feel like you’re part of the narrative. It’s an immersive experience and is such a fantastic change of pace. I was convinced that the email format would annoy me but it really didn’t. Will it eventually get old? Certainly. For now, it works. The Appeal is everything that I’ve been lead to believe.

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