Can you write a complex murder mystery only using emails? Well, the answer is yes and no…
Name: The Appeal
Author: Janice Hallet
In a town full of secrets… Someone was murdered. Someone went to prison. And everyone’s a suspect. Can you uncover the truth?
Dear Reader – enclosed are all the documents you need to solve a case. It starts with the arrival of two mysterious newcomers to the small town of Lockwood, and ends with a tragic death. Someone has already been convicted of this brutal murder and is currently in prison, but we suspect they are innocent. What’s more, we believe far darker secrets have yet to be revealed.
Throughout the Fairway Players’ staging of All My Sons and the charity appeal for little Poppy Reswick’s life-saving medical treatment, the murderer hid in plain sight. Yet we believe they gave themselves away. In writing. The evidence is all here, between the lines, waiting to be discovered. Will you accept the challenge? Can you uncover the truth?
From the blurb, it sounds as if you’re going to be playing Cleudo. Originally, I felt far too lazy to solve the mystery myself – isn’t that what the characters are for? But I was soon immersed in the hierarchal and tangled web of the Fairway Players, and thoroughly enjoyed this thoroughly unconventional mystery.
The Appeal is a bit like a murder mystery in reverse. Written entirely in emails and the occasional text message, it is a ‘modern take on the epistolary novel’. Two law students are given correspondences leading up to a murder to deduce if someone is wrongfully convicted. (Wow! Like an Appeal!). The idea was that the students go in blind and objective, so Femi and Charlotte are presented with the same information as the reader, which was very fun.
While Femi and Charlotte make some impressive deductions that I had no hope of catching, the mystery itself felt a little predictable. Around half way, the narrative became a bit stagnant and repetitive now that the characters personalities had been set out. I wanted more explanation of the law students – what is their relationship to each other? Did they struggle to solve it? Why is their boss Mr Tanner so emotionally involved in the case?
In short, a lot was riding on the eventual reveal. However, to add to the author’s commitment to defying conventions, the ending wasn’t all over in a few paragraphs. Femi and Charlotte would present a theory that you’re sure is the truth, but Tanner would supply a non chronological piece of the puzzle that would change the whole picture. I loved how the explanation blossoms for about 100 pages – you’re drip fed all these clues; little reveals after little reveals.
‘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.’– The Appeal
Any review of The Appeal wouldn’t be complete without talking about the ’email’ discourse structure. I was surprised with the amount of personality conveyed from just emails. It’s like being inside the characters’ heads, and the emails were cleverly written. Effective and often funny. They add a distinct human quality to the characters and I can imagine a lot of the interactions actually occurring – like in the quote above, discussing a cancer diagnosis… A lot comes from a little. Some personalities shined through; Issy and Martin had really strong voices but some, of the many, many characters, fell a little flat or felt irrelevant.
It is a big cast; it detracts from dramatic reveals when you can’t remember who the characters even are, doesn’t it? Some readers may find the various different storylines overwhelming. But while there are a lot of characters, it’s manageable if you put a bit of work in. Aside from that, The Appeal is quite an easy read and I flew through it.
I fluctuated between 4 and 5 stars throughout reading. Admittedly, the ’email’ discourse structure sometimes felt a little lazy. Some plots were left ambiguous or not properly concluded because of the excuse of the information not being something you’d mention in an email. However, almost every review of The Appeal begins with groundbreaking or revolutionary, and they’re not wrong. I can see the temptation to write in this format – why ever bother with prose again? Emails are much more common in out daily lives and, as Janice Halley has proven, they can create rich and vibrant characters.
What do you think: could this format be the future of the murder mystery?