“Farthing” by Jo Walton – chilling mystery set in an alternate 1949 Britain

farthing-jo-waltonIn Walton’s alternate history , 1949 sees the ruling Conservative Party dominated by the “Farthing Set”, a clique of high Tories credited with negotiating “Peace with Honour” between the Third Reich and the British Empire in response to Hess’ overture on behalf of Hitler in 1941. On the eve of an important vote in Commons, the Farthing Set is gathered at the house after which it is named, the country seat of Viscount Eversley, when Sir James Thirkie, chief negotiator of the peace, is murdered.

From this premise Walton builds a story that uses the solidly-decent meme of an English Country House murder (à la Sayers or Christie) to expose the fascist underbelly of the British Empire, built on anti-Semitism, xenophobia, misogyny, homophobia and an entrenched class system that places the powerful above the law.

Walton tells the story through the eyes of two protagonists: Lucy Eversley Kahn, daughter of Viscount Eversley and Inspector Peter Carmichael of Scotland Yard. These characters are inspired choices that humanize what might have turned into a political rant, give an insight into the choices made by “decent” people confronted with Fascism at home, and make the world that Walton has drawn, much more chilling by being much more credible.

One cannot help but like Lucy. She is the acceptable face of the English aristocracy: a kind, intelligent, self-deprecating, independent woman, who loves her father, has survived the disdain verging on hatred of her mother and who has sacrificed her privileged position in society to marry and English Jew. As the story unfolds and the true nature of the evil that is behind Thirkie’s death is understood, Lucy leads us from shock through revulsion and on to pragmatic action and a search for hope.

In another world, our world perhaps, Inspector Carmichael, with his sharp mind and his need to find the truth, would be righting wrongs and improving the capabilities of the Metropolitan Police. In this world it quickly becomes clear that he is more vulnerable than powerful and that “doing the right thing” may not be a choice that is available to him.

I admire Walton’s ability to show what Fascism really does to freedom by demonstrating how it threatens and damages those who our laws and our democracy ought to make safe.

I find her alternate history very credible. In my view, modern Britain was fundamentally shaped by the decision of the British people in the “Khaki Election” of 1945, the first election in ten years, held on the heels of Victory in Europe Day, to put their trust in Labour Party, rather than the Conservatives, to rebuild Britain. By imagining a Britain in which this choice was never made and where Fascism in Europe was colluded with rather than challenged and defeated, Walton reminds us that the freedoms we enjoy today were hard-won and could be easily lost.

I listened to the audio version of this book. Bianca Amato, who reads the chapters written from Lucy’s point of view, does an excellent job. Her accent is perfect as is her finely nuanced use of emotion. John Keating reads the chapters written Peter Carmichael’s point of view. He does a fine job of the voices of most of the characters but I thought the voice he used for Peter was a little off. His accent was too working class for someone educated at a minor public school. Nevertheless he was easy to listen to and handled both emotion and factual exposition well.

I recommend this book both as a good read, it is an excellent murder mystery, and as a reminder of the sources of power Fascism draws upon.

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3 thoughts on ““Farthing” by Jo Walton – chilling mystery set in an alternate 1949 Britain

  1. This sounds really interesting – I’ve only read her fantasy novel Tooth and Claw, but her alternate history sounds fascinating. Have you read any of her other post-WW2 alternate history? If so where would you recommend starting?

    • Hi Mark,

      “Farthing” is the start of a trilogy. I have the other two “Ha’Penny” and “Half a Crown” on my to read list. They both follow the career of Inspector Carmichael as he becomes someone who deals with terrorism and threats to the British state.

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