by Jo Walton
Reviewed by Steven H Silver
In the past several years, there have been many alternate histories which look at an England which is became more dictatorial in the middle of the twentieth century. In Murray Davies' Collaborator, it is the result of a Nazi invasion of the island. In Ian MacLeod's The Summer Isles, England went fascist following a German victory in World War I. Jo Walton presents an England on the verge of moving to a dictatorship in Farthing, which appears at first glance to be a pretty typical English countryhouse mystery.
The novel opens with the movers and shakers of post-war England taking a weekend at Farthing, the manor house which gave its name to the group which arranged a peace between England and Germany in 1941 following the Blitz and Rudolf Hess's flight to Scotland. The weekend is disturbed by the discovery that Sir James Thirkie, who actually authored the peace, had been murdered. A Jewish star of the type worn by Jews on the continent, points to David Kahn, the Jewish son-in-law of the manor's lord, as the primary suspect.
Walton alternates her chapters between Lucy Kahn, David's wife and the semi-outcast daughter of the owners of Farthing, and Inspector Peter Carmichael, up from Scotland Yard to investigate the murder. Of course, with the social status of those present at Farthing, politics comes into play almost immediately and Carmichael finds himself engulfed in a world where everything has repercussions.
Farthing provides a microcosm of 1949 England. While Carmichael is able to look into the murder of Thirkie and move that aspect of the plot along, Walton makes good use of Lucy to relate the cultural and social world of this England. As the murder investigation and the weekend progresses, Lucy grows from a woman who is vaguely naive about her parents' world to someone who has a much stronger, and more cynical, view of her country and relatives.
Lucy grew up surrounded by the "Farthing Set" and takes them at face value, accepting their foibles and seeing them as typical and normal. Her relationship with David, however, has started to erode the fašade as he is at best tolerated, at worst unacceptable, to those she held closest. The weekend of the murder allows her to truly begin to see the reality which is hiding beneath the surface of the people she long thought of as friends.
While the opening chapters of Farthing appear to be a traditional murder mystery with the alternate history aspect kept in the background, as the novel progresses and the political aspects of the case become more important, the alternate history encroaches more and more on the country mystery. By the end of the novel, Walton shows a world which not only appears to be on a course to embrace totalitarianism, but also one in which the banality of evil is commonplace.
What Walton has done with Farthing is write a mystery novel which takes place in a world similar to our own, but different enough that the crime is not the horror that stays with the reader after the book is finished. The mystery surrounding Thirkie's death is resolved in both a realistic and satisfying manner and the fates of the various characters, while not necessarily entirely resolved, had their groundwork laid in the earlier chapters of the novel.
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