The wraparound story that sets up The Appeal (2021) by Janice Hallett features a Queen’s Counsel who has instructed two of his articled clerks (? — I welcome corrections of my imperfect understanding of the UK legal system) to examine a packet of written evidence used in a trial — emails, text messages, letters — to determine if there are grounds to appeal a murder conviction that the QC believes was wrongly decided. As the two clerks review all of the information, they exchange texts and emails with each other and with their boss, providing exposition to the reader in the guise of asking for clarification or talking through scenarios.
The legal case is not the only appeal that the title refers to. At the heart of the story is a village community theater group, the Fairway Players, which is run more or less benevolently by the local “alpha” family, the Haywards. They receive shocking news when their young granddaughter, Poppy, is diagnosed with cancer. Her only hope is an experimental drug treatment that has not been approved in the UK and is only available at enormous cost directly from the American doctors conducting a clinical trial. The family launches an ambitious crowdfunding campaign to raise the funds, while simultaneously rehearsing and preparing to debut the theater group’s current play, Arthur Miller’s All My Sons.
It’s pretty clear from the setup and the opening pages that there’s something rotten in Lockwood, but we don’t find out who the victim is until quite late, which makes reading all of the emails and texts akin to putting together a jigsaw puzzle without being able to refer to the picture on the box. I found The Appeal to be a compelling page-turner, and it was enjoyable to continually make and revise guesses about what was really going on, to whom and by whom, throughout. (Let’s just say murder isn’t the only criminal activity going on among this lot.) The characters were fully formed and distinct enough to both distinguish from each other and allow the reader to form definite opinions about them based on their communications.
All in all, I found this a rollicking good time. Because the story is told in an epistolary style, there’s no blood or gore — the focus really is on trying to put the puzzle together and arrive at the same conclusion as the lawyers. The final chapter seemed like the perfect payoff for the setup that occurred throughout the story, which is always a satisfying way to end a mystery.