HALF A CROWN
by Jo Walton
Reviewed by Steven H Silver
Watch Commander Peter Carmichael returns in the third installment of Jo Walton's "Small Change" trilogy. Half a Crown is set in 1960 as the social season is about to begin and a major peace conference is scheduled to commence in London. Half a Crown follows the same pattern Walton used for Farthing and Ha'penny, in which Carmichael's activities are described in chapters which alternate with a first person account by a female protagonist. In this case, that individual is Elvira Royston, the daughter of Sergeant Royston from Farthing and now Carmichael's ward.
Elvira is preparing for her coming out as a debutante, and activity which she sees as essentially silly, but also an important aspect of her life. Although her birth wouldn't normally entitle her to the honor, she is included in part because of Carmichael's position, but also because of her close friendship with Betsy Maynard. When Betsy's beau, Sir Alan Bellingham, takes Betsy and Elvira to a march that turns ugly, Elvira finds herself temporarily under arrest and her carefully prescribed world turned upside down.
Carmichael, meanwhile, finds all of his time is being spent taking care of security arrangements for the peace conference. When Prime Minister Normanby orders the deportation of protesters whose only crime appears to be that they didn't like his activities, Carmichael finds himself in the middle of that as well. Elvira's arrest impinges on his activities and one almost wonders why he is needed to run his department, which is, of course, the point. A good manager isn't needed to run the day-to-day affairs, or even oversee all the details of a special event, because they know how to delegate.
Half a Crown is different than its predecessors. In Farthing, Carmichael had to solve a murder mystery. In Ha'penny, he knew that there would be an assassination attempt and he needed to prevent it. In Half a Crown, the situation is much more personal, with his bureaucratic enemies seeing a chance to get at him and jumping to take it. Not all of the action fits together as well as one might hope. Mark Normanby, the Prime Minister, seems content to sit back and watch how the situation will play out, which seems less controlling than Walton has shown his character to be. Furthermore, Normanby's motivation for wanting to see Carmichael removed seems a bit weak.
In many ways it is this difference in Half a Crown which makes it less focused than the earlier books in the series. Although Carmichael has a set task, it isn't the primary concern of the novel. The other half of the story, looking at Elvira Royston, is of a girl who knows she has friends, but she is cut off from them for much of the book, entering into a world which is apart from the one she has always known. Walton depicts her as strangely cut off, not just from the world she has left behind, but also from the world in which she finds herself moving. The various assaults on her dignity and character almost seem to be happening to someone else as she doesn't take any of them personally.
Although Walton has stated that Half a Crown is the final novel in her series about Carmichael, she leaves herself a wonderful opportunity to explore not only Carmichael's life, but a variety of different levels of society in her world as it goes through another transition following the events of Half a Crown. She has spent three novels creating an interesting world and in the end she turns her world upside down, leaving the reader wanting to see what happens next.
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