It’s early December 2022 and the Fairway Players are rehearsing for their latest command performance: a one-night-only production of Jack and the Beanstalk in aid of the local church’s roof repair fund. The parts have been cast, the props procured and the set staged, and despite the group members’ propensity for drama, everything seems to be going to plan. However, the festive cheer is soon marred by simmering conflicts and overt sabotage within the amateur dramatics group, setting the stage for a compelling whodunnit.
Of course, Janice Hallett’s work is never that straightforward.
In fact, similar to The Appeal, her sublime debut novel, The Christmas Appeal is a contemporary epistolary novel comprised entirely of texts, emails and other assorted records. Once again, newly called criminal barristers Femi Hassan and Charlotte Holroyd are tasked by their mentor, the recently retired Roderick Tanner KC, with working through a bundle of documents related to yet another contretemps in the genteel market town of Lower Lockwood.
With nothing but the e-discovery scans provided by Tanner to go on, Hassan and Holroyd have to figure out what actually happened during rehearsals for the pantomime and who, if anyone, is responsible.
While The Christmas Appeal represents a return to familiar ground – the painfully repressed, middle-class and surprisingly spiteful Lower Lockwood – some things have certainly changed since the events of The Appeal. Perhaps most significantly, following the enforced departure of the Haywards, control of the Fairway Players has passed to Sarah-Jane and Kevin MacDonald. Hints are dropped as to their and other characters’ roles in the original novel, but unravelling the current mystery does not require knowledge of the previous one.
Although the delightfully venomous Celia Halliday, a one-time Hayward loyalist, considers the MacDonalds to be terribly uncouth, the theatre group is actually going from strength to strength under their leadership. Still, that’s not to say that the traditional gossiping and back-biting within the group have ceased. Fortunately, the rivalries and resentments remain strong, and it’s clear from the opening correspondence in Tanner’s document bundle that there is more than one duplicitous thespian among the Fairway Players.
Perhaps one of the major themes of The Christmas Appeal is the notion that the more things change, the more they stay the same, and this is reflected in the fact that the eclectic cast of characters are just as zany, peculiar and aggrieved as ever. The way in which they by turns butter up and gaslight, praise and besmirch, each other via text and email is hilarious and sadly true to life. All human life is present in the amateur dramatics group, and their varied perceptions and recollections add detail and intrigue as the central mystery unfolds.
Beyond the Fairway Players, the rarefied Lower Lockwood has itself undergone a major upheaval due to the addition of two new developments: the upmarket Hayward Heights and the affordable Grange Estate. The differing opinions as to who should be invited to join the group, with Sarah-Jane advocating for as many new members as possible and Celia staunchly insisting that residents of the Grange Estate are not exactly theatre people, forms another strand of Hallett’s comedy of manners.
For such a pleasant environment, many of the residents are so amazingly unpleasant that it’s a joy to follow their exploits. In fact, while the Fairway Players have decided that farce is now passé, several of the members repeatedly find themselves involved in farcical situations. The often deadpan way in which such things are described, whether directly or in passing, in the correspondence is very funny, making it impossible not to laugh at the absurdity of just how seriously they take things.
Through such matters, Hallett expertly captures the essence of small-town rivalries and social dynamics, skilfully interweaving humour and puzzlement throughout the novella. The fact that the story unfolds through a series of electronic communications ensures that it is both fast-paced and immersive, lending a welcome modern twist to a traditional literary format. Moreover, learning about events from a range of viewpoints enhances the complexity of the mystery, making it difficult to determine whodunwhat.
The Christmas Appeal is another excellent work of crime fiction from Janice Hallett, offering an enthralling blend of mystery, humour and holiday cheer. Its pacy plotting and well-developed characters make it the perfect choice for those seeking a light and highly entertaining read during the festive season.
CFL Rating: 5 Stars
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