Anyone who has participated in a school benefit auction will recognize the adrenalized altruism practiced by the good people of an English community in The Appeal. To fill the coffers of a crowd-funding campaign for a sick child, they come up with yogathons, bake-offs, dinner dances, merchandise, distance swims—even an “Elvis cookathon,” whatever that is. Because why should money be the difference between life and death for two-year-old Poppy, who has been diagnosed with a rare form of brain cancer, potentially curable by an experimental—and expensive—drug therapy available in the U.S.?
This is the question posed by Martin Hayward, the child’s grandfather, in an e-mail blast, and thus is born “A Cure for Poppy.” Hayward is the patriarch of the town’s alpha family, and at the same time everyone is working furiously to save Poppy, the Haywards’ community-theater group is getting ready to present Arthur Miller’s All My Sons, doubling down on the drama.
Though The Appeal may sound like a cozy, it is not. It is both a sophisticated social satire and multi-layered mystery that cleverly updates Agatha Christie’s English-village mysteries. There is a lot of deception going on in this book, which requires your full attention since it is told almost entirely in texts and e-mails, meaning there are many potentially unreliable narrators. But it’s all there if you look for it, framed by a series of helpful legal documents from a lawyer and his two young colleagues. The nature of the crimes, of which there are several, takes a while to materialize, but a skeptical reader may be able to guess one partway through. And, yes, there is a murder.
If you think mysteries have been getting too bleak and apocalyptic lately, The Appeal is for you. It’s original, expertly constructed, and funny—a breath of fresh air from first-time novelist Janice Hallett.
The obstacles for young Black musicians hoping to break into the classical field have been formidable, rooted in systemic racism. There are few Black players or conductors in symphony orchestras, and fewer with solo careers, so role models have been scarce. Funding for music education in public schools keeps getting cut. Add to that the expense of elite classical training and you’ve got a cycle that until very recently has been unbreakable.
In Brendan Slocumb’s debut novel, this is the reality faced by Rayquan McMillian, a young violin prodigy from North Carolina. His high-school-orchestra leader is a racist who doesn’t acknowledge Ray’s talent, and even his family is against him: his grasping mother just wants him to get a job at Popeyes and forget about “that noise.” It would take a miracle for his gift to flourish.
But lucky for Ray, a well-connected music professor takes him under her wing, and the violin his grandmother bequeaths to him, which has been neglected in her attic for years, turns out to be a Stradivarius. Ray becomes a sensation due to the combination of his undeniable talent and the notoriety of the rare and valuable instrument. But his success makes him a target, and when his violin is stolen before a prestigious music competition, his focus is split between winning and recovering the Strad.
Slocumb is a Black violinist and educator who doesn’t hesitate to declare in wincingly ugly terms what Ray is up against, but that is balanced by his vivid pictorial descriptions of Ray’s art. I’m guessing the Venn diagram of people who love both mysteries and classical music is fairly large, so Slocumb’s use of the milieu to craft an art-theft mystery/underdog tale is inspired. Ray is someone you want to root for, along with his real-life counterparts waiting their turn on the concert stage.
When he was 18, Lachlan Kite was recruited just out of boarding school by a special-intelligence group called BOX 88, made up of British and American spies operating independently of M.I.6 and the C.I.A. Though his lack of experience should have put him off limits, the outfit overlooked it for tactical purposes: he was spending the summer of 1989 in the South of France with a wealthy school friend whose guests included an Iranian businessman in whom BOX 88 took an interest after the Lockerbie bombing of Pan Am Flight 103, in 1988.
We meet Kite in the present day at the funeral of that dissolute school friend. Immediately after, he’s kidnapped by an Iranian agent and his henchmen and interrogated, in the bowels of a boat, about his time in France. What follows is a narrative that jumps back and forth between Kite’s memories of that unforgettable holiday and the joint efforts of BOX 88 and M.I.5, who don’t trust one another, to rescue him. Kite walks a terrifying line, trying to stay alive by giving his captor just enough, while mentally editing as he goes along lest he betray BOX 88.
I’m embarrassed to say this is my introduction to Scottish writer Charles Cumming, who has several award-winning spy novels to his credit. Based on BOX 88, he is in the top tier of this genre and deserves to have a higher profile in the U.S. Rigorously researched in the historical sections and psychologically nuanced, this is a surprisingly sensitive coming-of-age story as well as a look at spycraft then and now, contrasting the old-school students of human nature with contemporary technocrats. Luckily, this is the beginning of a series that ends with a tantalizing comment left hanging in midair—the follow-up has already been published in the U.K., so American readers can hope for more Lachlan Kite soon.
Lisa Henricksson reviews mystery books for AIR MAIL. She lives in New York City