The Archers – ‘an everyday tale of country folk’ – first hit the radio waves on the 1st of January, 1951 (displacing Dick Barton – don’t get me started…about the only thing the two shows have in common is iconic theme tunes). In part, the show was developed as a way of getting Government information on best practice in farming out to the nation, but it was also important that the programme be entertaining. In both ambitions the show has been successful, as evidenced by the fact that the Archers is still going 60 years later, having racked up more than 19,500 episodes. The Archers is set in farming country: although not everyone in the show is a farmer, many of the characters are, and many more are dependent on the farms that surround the fictional village of Ambridge.
Why do I mention this? Well, I’ve just been reading ‘The Appeal’ by Janice Hallett, and the community at the heart of the book is reminiscent of the Archers. Here though, the focus is an amateur dramatics group although, as with the Archers, there is a distinct social hierarchy. The founders of the Fairway Players are labelled as the alpha family and social importance is defined by closeness to this family. They are very much in control of the group, and whilst there are open rehearsals for every play (essentially selected by the founders), it is a foregone conclusion that the matriarch of the alpha family will be the leading lady.
The cover states that there is one murder and 15 suspects, and invites the reader to work out whodunit. So far so good. The conceit here is that a QC* has instructed two of his pupils** to review documentation in preparation for an appeal on behalf of his client. He’s convinced his client is innocent (naturally), but wants fresh eyes to see if they can see what he can, or whether he’s seeing things that he wants to… Hence, the book unfolds as a series of recovered emails and text messages from some, but not all, of the people at the heart of the events. It is punctuated by WhatsApp conversations between the two pupils, and later on the QC joins in too. (This is played for comic effect with the obviously otherwise very capable QC struggling with the tech, and frequently having to dictate to his secretary what he wants to message to his pupils).
*For those unfamiliar with the British legal system, a QC = Queen’s Council, a senior lawyer, with certain privileges in a Court of Law. That’s the short version, anyway.
**Lawyer speak for a person who is in the last stage of qualifying to become a barrister.
This, then, in many ways, is an update on the classic Dorothy L. Sayers book ‘The Documents in the case’ – although this is not one that I’ve read, so I can’t draw any further comparisons, at the moment.
The Appeal has had some good PR and I freely admit that I picked it up based on the advertising – and the strap-line; the whole ‘story told through emails’ thing passed me by though.
Did I enjoy it? Yes, and I’d recommend it to anyone who likes their mysteries. Is it perfect? No. It’s a brilliant subversion of the form, but there are some niggles. The emails provided are from a relatively small pool of the characters – by no means are the full 15 suspects represented. That’s not necessarily a problem but there are some notable absences, and my feeling is this is simply to hide some of the characters from our view. It’s been suggested that Ronald Knox’s Ten Commandments of Detective Fiction have become outdated; this may to some extent be true, even whilst these rules underpin pretty much all of the Golden Age Detective books. Still, the fundamental ethos here is playing fair with the reader, and I’m not sure that is really the case here – I could make some good guesses about the events, as they unfolded, but I felt that there was some information missing, not just that I’d been diverted away from what I needed to know.
There are very few sympathetic characters in the book, and arguably even the victim is not entirely likeable, although we don’t really get a good feel for them. When it came to the culprits, I would have been happy enough for most of the cast to go to jail…
In summary, if you’re looking for a sweet little old lady solving a crime in a country house, you will be disappointed. But if you’d like to something that’s a bit different, then this is definitely the book for you. The detective(s) are not the focus here, but rather a community of, perhaps not quite everyday country folk, but you might recognise some of your neighbours…and the dark underbelly is very much brought out into the light…
© 2022, David Jesson