Tag Archives: murder mystery

The Appeal by Janice Hallett

In a town full of secrets… Someone was murdered. Someone went to prison. And everyone’s a suspect. Can you uncover the truth?

In the small town of Lockwood, a couple recently returned from working with Medicine Sans Frontiers in Africa join a local amateur dramatics society and are cast in their production of All My Sons. At the same time, a two-year-old girl is diagnosed with a brain tumor, and her family launch an appeal to raise money for life-saving treatment from the United States. In the course of these events, a murder is committed. The suspect is in prison, but a QC who worked on the trial believes that the murder is still at large and hiding in plain sight. He instructs two law students to review a portfolio of evidence to see if they too come to the same conclusion.

The Appeal by Janice Hallett is a whodunnit with a difference, with an innovative structure that brings detective stories into the 21st century, the story is told through whatsapp messages, texts and emails, with the build up to the murder thus told by an array of unreliable narrators, in which the victim is voiceless, and the two law students serve to direct the reader’s focus, before acting as the Columbo-like detective figure spelling out what really happened on the night of the murder.

I really enjoyed this book, there’s something a little voyeuristic about picking through the emails, but it’s highly readable and as a format it really works. The characterisation is brilliantly conveyed through the emails the characters themselves write, and they manage to evoke some really strong reactions to various characters throughout the course of the novel. I was a bit of a drama kid growing up, and I’ve always found that local amateur dramatics groups can be a real cesspit of politics and factions, and I thought that Janice Hallet skewered these beautifully in The Appeal. Some of the characters were all too recognisable!

At the end of The Appeal, the reader is invited by the QC to answer 15 questions which will help reveal the killer. Even though I managed a few like which character was never there at all, I have to admit I flunked it, but in the most enjoyable way.

I thought that this was a really fun read, and it’s one of those books which will definitely become one of my go to Christmas and birthday presents for fans of Agatha Christie style crime novels.

The Fourteenth Letter by Claire Evans

On a warm summer’s evening in 1881, a beautiful young woman is murdered in front of her fiance at her engagement party in full view of fifty guests. Her killer escapes, but her murder sets in motion a chain of events which begin to uncover a dark secret. When legal clerk William Lamb finds his comfortable life ripped away from him by his mentor’s violent suicide, his world begins to crumble as he is forced to confront why an ordinary man like himself has suddenly become the focus of a sinister group with links to three of the world’s major super powers.

On paper, The Fourteenth Letter by Claire Evans has hints of everything that should make a good mystery novel. A shocking and inexplicable murder; mysterious artefacts with a long and improbable history; a character on a journey of self-discovery; criminals with their hearts in the right places; the great and good of society engaged in terrible deeds; a mess of strong female characters…

But for me, while the plot was strong and on the whole well-paced this novel fell far short of its promise. It felt like a story board where characters were moved through set pieces which had been lifted from a selection box of plot ideas then slotted into a novel. So often, the characters’ actions seemed completely at odds with their characterisation at this point that it left me unable to understand what would make them act in the way they did.

Why would a ruthlessly pragmatic woman focused only on her own survival try to rescue an elderly man that she doesn’t know from a situation that she can’t hope to escape?

Why would a wiley and discreet detective spill the details of a secret meeting in a moment of offhanded unguardedness to a journalist friend when he has so successfully refused to divulge any information to him before?

Why would an elite group with unlimited wealth and power allow themselves to be thrown into chaos by one lone drip, when they have the police in their pockets and they have enough circumstantial evidence to bring him down?

Why would the meticulously controlled Obediah Pincott just let everyone go on a whim?

There were just so many plot holes when a bit more finesse at characterisation would have tightened all of this up. The character of Savannah Shelton was the most obvious problem here. With only the vaguest hints of where she’s come from, and that she’s on the run, wanted for murder, we have no understanding of why she would repeatedly risk her life to save William Lamb. It felt very strongly that the author is hoping to leave the door open for a sequel to The Fourteenth Letter (probably one which sees the Vicomtesse Adeline return in her mask like the Phantom of the Opera and attempt to claim her grandchild/nephew/niece to continue her eugenics programme with the help of now President Cornelius Tinbergen forcing Savannah to return to America…whether she’ll still have goose-stepping German soldiers propping up her eugenics programme following the demise of her brother remains to be seen) and if it does, I hope we’ll see more characterisation.

As a plot driven novel, it’s enjoyable enough but I felt that the switch from murder mystery to an exploration of Darwinism and eugenics was a bit of a cliché fuelled stretch.