That’s right folks, today’s post is a double bonanza of crime fiction related goodness with reviews of two utterly fantastic crime novels that, although quite different in terms of tone and setting, both play with our readerly expectations and use their form and presentation to great effect. Both are strong contenders for my Books of the Year and, despite going into both with a fair bit of hype behind them, more than exceeded my expectations. So without further ado, let’s get to our first book!
The Appeal by Janice Hallett
In a town full of secrets…
Someone was murdered. Someone went to prison. And everyone’s a suspect.
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?
Taking the form of a case file, Janice Hallett’s The Appeal presents crime fiction aficionados with a tantalising proposition: can you turn investigator and solve the case?
Told via a series of documents, The Appeal follows law students Femi and Charlotte as they delve into a lengthy trail of emails and documentary evidence to try and get to the bottom of the tragic death that rocked the small town of Lockwood in July 2018. Roderick Tanner QC is preparing to launch an appeal on behalf of the person who has been sent to prison for murder – but as the novel opens, you the reader don’t know who that is or even who has been murdered!
Instead you’re presented with a series of emails between the members of amateur theatrical society The Fairway Players. They’re preparing to welcome two new members – and to begin casting and rehearsals for a charity production of All My Sons which will be in aid of ‘A Cure for Poppy’, the charitable appeal set up to held the granddaughter of one of their leading members receive life-saving cancer treatment. But as the novel progresses – and Femi and Charlotte’s review of the evidence continues – it becomes apparent that all is not well in The Fairway Players. Amidst the traditional small town rivalries and petty power plays, darker forces are at work – and it might not just be murder that is the eventual outcome.
The documentary form gives The Appeal real pace and compulsion – I absolutely tore through the book, finishing it in just a couple of days! And whilst I did guess some of the twists and turns (working out the victim and accused murderer was pretty easy), other revelations kept me guessing right up until the very end! Janice Hallett has done a fantastic job of layering various levels of mystery and tension, leaving you as the reader/investigator trying to figure out whether someone’s seemingly innocuous message about staying out late for a few drinks with friends at the golf club is actually a cover for a personal intrigue – or a much darker and sinister deed. Some strands of the case turn out to be false leads and red herrings whilst others, seemingly small at first, morph into larger and more significant events giving the book a real sense of being a case file in progress – and of the reader’s investigations progressing alongside Femi and Charlotte’s.
I can’t say that the characters particularly drew me in to The Appeal – with so many of them it was, at times, easy to forget some of the more peripheral figures and I was very glad that I was reading in paperback so that I could flick back to the list of key players near the front of the book! In this way, The Appeal reminds me of the works of Agatha Christie – her standout characters tend to stick in the mind but many of her novels contain characters that flit around the borders, dropping in with a significant bit of information and then leaving. And, as with Christie’s works, the appeal of The Appeal very much lies in the compulsive plotting and the way in which it plays around with its form and with the reader’s narrative expectations. Brilliant, brilliant stuff.
Which brings me, quite neatly, to the next book I want to review…
True Crime Story by Joseph Knox
In the early hours of Saturday 17 December 2011, Zoe Nolan, a nineteen-year-old Manchester University student, walked out of a party taking place in the shared accommodation where she had been living for three months.
She was never seen again.
Seven years after her disappearance, struggling writer Evelyn Mitchell finds herself drawn into the mystery. Through interviews with Zoe’s closest friends and family, she begins piecing together what really happened in 2011. But where some versions of events overlap, aligning perfectly with one another, others stand in stark contrast, giving rise to troubling inconsistencies.
Shaken by revelations of Zoe’s secret life, and stalked by a figure from the shadows, Evelyn turns to crime writer Joseph Knox to help make sense of a case where everyone has something to hide.
Zoe Nolan may be missing presumed dead, but her story is only just beginning.
Joseph Knox’s True Crime Story, his first standalone novel following on from his successful Aidan Waits series, delights in experimenting with form, creating a metafictional Manchester in which the writer, Joseph Knox, is both presenting the ‘true crime story’ of the title – an account of the disappearance of young university student Zoe Nolan – and becoming increasingly embroiled both in the mysterious death of the account’s author, Evelyn Mitchell and, possibly, of the case itself.
Told through a series of interviews between Evelyn and Zoe’s closest friends and family, interspersed with emails between Knox and Evelyn about the book, True Crime Story uses its narrative form and structure to not only propel the story and heighten the intrigue – inviting the reader to turn investigator in a similar way to Hallett’s The Appeal – but also to highlight the narrative voices that are missing from the tale.
Because, ultimately, True Crime Story is novel that investigates who gets to tell the stories of missing – and murdered – young women? Who decides whether Zoe Nolan was a dutiful daughter, a gifted musician, a manipulative hussy, an attention-seeker, or a messed up young woman? Could she be all of those things – or none of them? And who decides how Evelyn Mitchell’s work is presented to us, the readers – who has editorial control and what does that lead them to omit? And why?
It’s incredibly cleverly done but not in a pretentious way. As an English Literature student, I delighted in picking apart the metafiction of True Crime Story – and of thinking about the ways in which Knox uses the expectations of narrative, form, and genre to interrogate wider questions about the perception of young women in our society, the portrayal of missing women and girls in media narratives, the control of those narratives, and the rise in ‘true’ crime fiction stories and podcasts. But if all that sounds a bit pretentious, I should stress that I also enjoyed the novel as a reader, appreciating its well-realised characters and setting, interview-like presentation (which reminded me a lot of Six Stories, one of my favourite series of recent years) and compulsive readability.
With a selection of divisive characters – you’ll find yourself both loving and loathing many of them (often at the same time) – and plenty of unexpected twists and revelations, True Crime Story is both a gripping crime novel and a shocking, sometimes chilling, examination of the fate of one young woman – and the implications of her fate for contemporary society.
I can honestly say that both The Appeal and True Crime Story are strong contenders for my Best Books of the Year list. Although different in tone and setting, both of them play with the expectations of the crime genre – and the unique structures through which they present their stories – to heighten the tension and draw the reader into the narrative.
I stormed through both novels, desperate to get back to them whenever forced to tear myself away to attend to real-world life. And, unusually for me and crime fiction, I’ve kept both to read again in the future, sure that I’ll want to go back and unpick some of the clues and revelations through a re-read. Both are highly, highly recommend.
The Appeal by Janice Hallett is published by Viper Books. True Crime Story by Joseph Knox is published by Doubleday. Both books are available now from all good booksellers and online retailers including Hive, Bookshop.org, Waterstones, and Wordery.
If you can, please support a local indie bookshop by ordering from them either in person or online! Some of my favourites include Booka Bookshop, The Big Green Bookshop, Sam Read Booksellers, Book-ish, Scarthin Books, and Berts Books.
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