Fans of murder mysteries and whodunnits will no doubt be aware of Janice Hallett, particularly in the UK. A rising star within the mystery-writing sphere, Hallett shot to fame in 2021 for her breakout The Appeal, a mixed-media mystery in a small town, and has rapidly become one of the most lauded and prolific writers of the past five years, with her latest release The Christmas Appeal coming out in time for the 2023 festive season.
Following the events of The Appeal, The Christmas Appeal is a novella of sorts, clocking in at just under 200 pages, and focusing on the disastrous events of the Christmas period prior, during which the Fairway Players, the amateur dramatics troupe at the centre of The Appeal‘s case, attempt to stage a pantomime and end up discovering a dead body in the middle of the performance.
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While Hallett’s biggest draw is her hand with a well-considered, ‘fair play’ mystery, and is a solid wordsmith, particularly when she’s working within the constraints of a mixed-media story (all of Hallett’s works have, at time of this review’s publication, used mixed-media or unusual formatting in some way), her true skill is in her character work. In The Christmas Appeal, with its focus on emails and instant messaging, Hallett draws out the intricacies and contradictions at the heart of human behaviour, with the Fairway Players proving perfect foils to one another, whether that’s in nefarious activity, illicit gossiping, or familial spats.
At the heart of The Christmas Appeal, and the closest thing is has to a protagonist, is Sarah-Jane MacDonald, director of the pantomime, a woman trying to keep it all together while combatting troupe in-fighting, faulty props, and an actual corpse on the eve of a key performance. She’s far from perfect, but is an enjoyable relatable central character, particularly when she’s trying to manage the production from descending into all out chaos, or when she’s bantering with her husband Kevin or her mother Carol.
There’s a focus on the intricacies of character shading and individuality that’s quite pleasing here – whether that’s a certain character insisting on their OBE being used in every use of their name, another character’s unique texting style, or another character’s style of writing their Christmas round-robin emails, as well as the intricate relationships and dynamics of every Fairway Player to one another. This isn’t just extended to the Fairway crew – the book, as The Appeal did, is viewed through the investigative lens of Femi and Charlotte, a pair of lawyers who are trying to solve the case at the behest of their now-retired boss, and their burgeoning friendship is a delight carried over from The Appeal.
The structure of The Christmas Appeal too is of note; the first half runs like a perfect farce – like the ones the snobbish Hallidays want to perform – while the second half builds on the mystery following the performance. The fact that Hallett manages to build all of this into a short amount of pages is laudable, as is the fact that The Christmas Appeal is as intriguing a whodunnit as it is sharply funny in its Austen-esque commentary on small-town personalities, and surprisingly heart-warming.
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While it’s not the longest Christmas tale out there, The Christmas Appeal is certainly one of the strongest out there and will no doubt become part of the yuletide mystery canon. With Hallett on the rise, touted in this book’s blurb as ‘an Agatha Christie for the twenty-first century’, The Christmas Appeal is a short and sweet tale for fans of her breakout novel and for anyone whose tastes run to mistletoe and murder…
The Christmas Appeal is out on 26th October from Viper Books.