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?
I have had mixed success in dipping into Waterstones’ recommended Thriller of the Month – The Dinner Guest was not a great one, but the blurb sounded interesting and I was at a loose end – haha! That’s a joke this last few weeks! – but the upshot was that despite the rave reviews (“daring” “fresh” “innovative”) I was not holding out terribly high hopes.
This novel, however, was really engaging!
The structure of the novel was basically epistolary – which being frank is not as innovative as is lauded – and the use of novel modern technology (email and SMS) to propel the narrative was exactly what Stoker was doing in Dracula! The premise is that a bundle of electronic communication records from the key players in a murder case are handed to two articled clerks to peruse and review. As readers, we read those emails alongside Femi and Charlotte, and we are privy to their messages and commentary on them as well.
The emails in the case – primarily amongst the members of the amateur dramatic society, The Fairways, in the town of Lockwood – are a wonderful act of ventriloquism. Each character has their own distinct and recognisable voice amongst the ensemble. Martin Hayward, the patriarch of the players, and his wife Helen; their children Paige and James; Sarah Jane MacDonald, energetic and slightly intimidatingly proactive; Isabel Beck, needy and so desperate to please and to belong. And these characters, who have been part of the community for years, circle around the newcomer, Samantha Greenwood, who had arrived in town following an eight year stint with Médecins Sans Frontières in Chad, South Sudan and the Central African Republic, taking up a position on the same hospital as Isabel Beck through whom she is introduced to the players.
The plot initially revolves around Poppy Reswick’s diagnosis:
There is no easy way to say this, but here it is: our darling granddaughter Poppy has been diagnosed with a rare type of brain cancer. We are reeling, devastated, not least because it came completely out of the blue after a routine check-up.
Sarah Jane leaps into arranging an appeal to raise money to fund an alleged experimental drug from the US. Over time, questions arise about Martin’s honesty, Sarah Jane’s honesty, Poppy’s doctor’s honesty, fraudulent and hoax donors and investments… and it wasn’t until about the 70% mark that it was confirmed within the narrative that this was a murder – and that did not matter at all. Hallett had got me caught up completely in her characters, in the lives of the players, of the hospital, of the friendship between Isabel and Samantha, of the tensions between Isabel and Sarah Jane, of the unreliability of almost everyone.
There were a few things that irked me: Femi and Charlotte’s commentary I found unnecessary and a little tedious – and not terribly credible. I mean, perhaps that is unfair, but I have worked in that industry: I was a barrister and, as a pupil barrister (the bar’s equivalent of an articled clerk) and their responses seemed… childish and the task set to them inappropriately vague. And – it is also a small thing – but the almost complete reliance on email as a mean of communication between the Fairway Players, even for informal chats, seemed unrealistic. Where were the SMS messages, the WhatsApp, the DMs? Where was the imagination and innovation here?
Overall, however, a wonderful meld of murder, of soap opera, of narrative dexterity.
What I Liked
The range of voices and characters in the epistolary tradition, Hallett managing to create and to maintain distincitve voices for her ensemble cast.
The increasing ratcheting up of tension.
The comedic moments: Sarah Jane’s exchanges with her husband Kevin – one of the rare times when Hallett deviates from the eternal emails – hold some great moments
21:50 Sarah-Jane wrote: In the kitchen with Emma and a toffee-sauce crisis. We’re slightly behind with dessert. Please visit the little man by the bar who seems to be hawking wares from a suitcase, and let me know WTF he is doing.
22:16 Kevin wrote: He’s with the band and is selling CDs.
22:17 Sarah-Jane wrote: That’s not part of the agreement. This is a black-tie ball, not a pub gig. What did you do?
22:18 Kevin wrote: Bought one for the car.
And the yogathon fundraising event was absurd, hilarious and disturbing, in which a crucial plot point was slipped
What Could Have Been Different
More courage and imagination in the range of media being offered to us the reader.
A more convincing representation of the lawyers – Femi and Charlotte were rather annoying.