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Susan’s Bookshelves: The Appeal by Janice Hallett

I’m a bit late to the party with this engaging, intriguing novel but it was a best seller in 2021 when it first published and Janice Hallett has written more since in the same vein. It was the former conductor of one of the orchestras I play in who drew my attention to it, last summer, when we were chatting over an end-of-term curry –  as you do.  So I ordered a digital download and then forgot it until now. Why did I wait so long?

Appeal is an epistolary crime novel. It means that there is no traditional or single narrator.  Instead the story unfolds in letters or other documents produced by the characters.  Of course it’s not a  new technique. Samuel Richardson’s Pamela and Choderlos de Laclos’s Les Liaisons Dangereuses crossed by bows years ago and they both date from the eighteenth century. Recent examples I’ve enjoyed include The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows and Paul Torday’s Salmon Fishing in Yemen.

It’s particularly clever way of presenting crime fiction because the networks, subtleties and secrets between the characters are almost as complex as those of the fungi I’m currently reading about and will share with you next week. And of course the joy of the 21st century media means that people email, text, WhatsApp and things like transcripts of police interviews can be included.


The setting is an amateur dramatic society who are rehearsing and staging a production of Arthur Miller’s All My Sons. Lots of people are related to each other and/or have friendships which go back decades. And there’s a hierarchy, ongoing “history” between longstanding members and serious things going on that most of them don’t know about.

The blissfully neat framing device gives us two legal trainees being set an exercise by their Principal, a QC named Tanner. A murder conviction is coming up for appeal. He wants Femi and Charlotte to read all the emails and other communications connected with the case and, as a training exercise, work out the truth because he believes there has been a wrongful imprisonment. Thus we get, as an occasional commentary, their conversations with each other and eventually with Tanner, along with occasional summaries in the form of notes they make for each other and eventually a report to present to Mr Tanner.

Thus it becomes a puzzle for the reader too –  like an immersive whodunit game as snippets of evidence are subtly layered in. The family who run the drama society have a grandchild who’s been diagnosed with brain cancer. £250,000 needs to be raised for a new form of chemotherapy from America so there’s lot of fundraising, rallying round and money flows in. But the sums don’t add up. What is the oncologist up to? What on earth is the matter with pushy, apparently daft Issy? What is Arnie’s background? And surely being in hospital watching the birth of your premature twins is a pretty good alibi? A lot of people are lying about a lot of things to a lot of other people and it’s enormously entertaining working out where the truth lies.

It’s also very funny in places. I laughed aloud at Mr Tanner’s clumsy attempts to get the hang of WhatsApp so that he could join in the chat with his juniors.

Next week on Susan’s Bookshelves: Entangled Life by Melvyn Sheldrake.

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Susan Elkin Susan Elkin is an education journalist, author and former secondary teacher of English. She was Education and Training Editor at The Stage from 2005 - 2016
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