RogerBW's Blog

Farthing, Jo Walton 14 January 2016

2006 alternate-history mystery, first in the "Small Change" trilogy. In 1949, Britain is at peace with the Reich, which is still fighting in Russia. At Farthing, a country house in Hampshire, one of the architects of that peace is murdered. Jews and Bolshevists are immediately blamed, but Inspector Carmichael thinks it's more complicated than that.

It would be a cardinal error to approach this book purely as a work of alternate history, though it certainly is that. Rather, it was inspired by some of the great English mystery novels, and particularly Brat Farrar. I mentioned in my review of that book that there are inconsistencies about the date at which it's set; Walton took those problems and built an alternate history out of them, in which someone might have been bombed out during the Blitz but someone else could have casually crossed the channel and got work on a ship in France in 1941.

The atmosphere of 'tween-wars England is inevitably starting to fade a little, but in this world it's still possible to keep up appearances. And one of those appearances, in an author's joke with the reader, is the country-house murder: but this is a country-house murder where the victim is left with one of the armbands that Jews have to wear on the Continent, and where there's no shortage of "them" to be given the blame.

It's the political manoeuvres following the murder, which take up much of the last third or so of the book, that I found weakest: not because they're implausible, but because they are far too plausible, just the same sort of obvious lie that people fall for by the millions in the real world, both before and after the publication of this book. Yes, it can happen here. It's not at all inaccurate, but it is dispiriting and thoroughly predictable; this isn't a book to read when you're already in a bad or cynical mood.

The narrative alternates by chapters between Inspector Carmichael, sent by Scotland Yard to investigate the murder, and Lucy Kahn née Eversley, daughter of the Eversleys whose house Farthing is, who's taken the socially disastrous step of marrying a Jew but whose mother has particularly insisted that she and her husband attend the house party on the weekend in question. A rapprochement? Probably not. The narrative voices are distinct, and unlike many dual-track stories both held my interest.

The ending, while it plays fair with the reader, is unexpected, effectively subverting one of the standard mystery tropes. The mystery itself is a bit under-explored; it obviously provides the framing narrative for the other things Walton wants to talk about, but the solution relies too heavily on confession rather than deduction, and rather too many clues are left dangling without resolution. In the end the book is primarily alternate history after all.

In spite of these minor drawbacks, distinctly recommended. Followed by Ha'penny, though I'll want to be in a good state of mind before I tackle it.

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See also:
Brat Farrar, Josephine Tey

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