‘The Appeal’ by Janice Hallett: an ingeniously plotted, finely crafted, murder mystery with masterly Miller-esque dramatic style.

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?

The Appeal’ is the widely critically acclaimed, debut novel by Janice Hallett, a former magazine editor, journalist and political speechwriter. She co-wrote the psychological thriller feature film The Retreat and has had several plays produced with further scripts in development.

The cover image illustrates the Defence Barrister’s Brief neatly tied up in pink ribbon.  Roderick Tanner, QC is representing a client who is appealing against their sentence and sets his trainees, Femi and Charlotte, the task of studying the papers to see if they agree with his conclusions.  

Open the book to find this collection of emails, texts, WhatsApp messages, police interviews and QC’s notes which will guide the reader too through all the legal evidence to unravel the truth behind the murder and if there has been a miscarriage of justice.

We are introduced to the large and colourful cast list of characters through their testimony in this flurry of correspondence – personal observations, anecdotes, chit chat, gossip, facts, and, no doubt, many secrets and lies.

Many of these are members of the Fairway Players, getting ready for the casting and rehearsals for a production of Arthur Miller’s, All My Sons (1947).

The award winning play is based on a true wartime story about a corrupt businessman, Joe Keller, who sold defective airplane parts, driven by a thirst for money and success even if it comes at the cost of family relationships and tragic consequences.

The film version of All My Sons, by Arthur Miller (1948)

A play within a play is a clever device.  Michael Frayn’s Noises Off is a farce set behind the scenes of a theatre production where mounting egos, memory loss and secret affairs turn every performance of Nothing On into real drama from dress rehearsal, the opening night and a performance towards the end of the run.

Alan Ayckbourn also used the scenario in ‘A Chorus of Disapproval’: A widower attempts to escape loneliness by joining the local amateur light operatic company for a performance of The Beggar’s Opera with all the day to day, often immoral, activities of the actors off stage. 

So here we have a modern murder mystery set around a classic play.  Very much in charge of proceedings is Martin Hayward, the director, a respected local businessman who owns The Grange Golf and Country Club.  In the cast of All My Sons are his wife Helen as Kate Keller, their daughter Paige is Lydia, three members of the McDonald family; Sam and Kel Greenwood, are new members having recently been voluntary aid workers in Africa. Isabel is a bit of a loner, neurotic and obsessive, desperately keen to make friends and have a starring role with the Fairway Players.

Drama off stage too when Martin and Helen’s grand-daughter Poppy is diagnosed with a brain tumour, and a Crowdfunding campaign is launched to raise £250,000 for experimental drug treatment in the USA.  Medical evidence on Poppy’s condition is supplied mainly by Dr Tish Bhatoa, an Oncology Consultant.

Of course, we are well aware that these amateur actors are playing a role on stage, who may well have a talent to deceive friends, family and the police in real life too.  

This is a complex maze of intertwined events: behind the scenes of the theatre production, Poppy’s terminal illness, the fundraising appeal – all leading up to the night of the murder. The correspondence between the characters together with police reports, offer a conflicting summary of everyone’s involvement, grudges, suspicions, arguments and strained friendships, as we try to work out the timeline of action.  But whom can we trust.?

Rather curiously as the Fairway Players are the prime suspects, the characters and motives in All My Sons, dealing with a fraudulent business scam and family deceit, are never explored by Martin and his cast, despite the close thematic links to the central plotline of The Appeal. 

On Page 296 there is an essential List of Individuals totalling 81 characters. This would be far better published as a pull- out Theatre programme, as you have to keep referring to it as a reminder of who everyone is – the key players, family relationships and the small but important cameo roles.

Another point to make is that Femi and Charlotte communicate by WhatsApp, with some messages printed in dark grey and difficult to read clearly (as illustrated above).

Sunday Times Crime Novel of the Month, January 2021

However, what does work so brilliantly is that through the dialogue of emails and texts, we can virtually ‘hear’ each character’s voice, giving a first-person narrative with sharp, psychological insight.  The antitheses of a fast paced, action thriller, the focus in The Appeal is on detailed discussion and debate with a slow methodical pace, ingeniously plotted and finely crafted with masterly Miller-esque dramatic style.

From a Review of the premiere of ‘All My Sons’, 30th January, 1947:

Mr. Miller has written an honest, forceful drama about a group of people caught up in a monstrous swindle.   Writing pithy yet unselfconscious dialogue, he has created his characters vividly with hearts and minds of their own. His drama is a piece of expert construction ..  an original play of superior quality by a playwright who knows his craft and has unusual understanding of the tangled loyalties of human beings.’ Brooks Atkinson, New York Times.

THE APPEAL by Janice Hallett is published by Viper @ Serpent’s Tail. 

Will you accept the challenge? Can you uncover the truth?

ISBN: 978-1788165280 –  Hardback.

ISBN: 978-1788165303 – Paperback to be published on 1st July, 2021.

Janice Hallett: the multi-talented journalist, film script writer, playwright and novelist

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About vivdevlin

I am an international travel writer, specialising in luxury travel, hotels, restaurants, city guides, cruises, islands, train and literary-inspired journeys. I review dance and theatre, Arts Festivals and love the visual arts. I have just experienced an epic voyage, circumnavigating the globe, following in the wake of Captain Cook, Mark Twain and Robert Louis Stevenson.

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