‘Farthing’ by Jo Walton is the first book of ‘The Small Change Trilogy’. The opening pages of the novel set up a conventional murder mystery. It is May 1949 and newlywed Lucy Kahn née Eversley tells the reader about the occurrences at her father’s country house in Hampshire where some upper-crust families have gathered for a weekend retreat. Soon, it is discovered that one of the guests, Sir James Thirkie, has been murdered during the night. A mysterious clue is a Star of David pinned to his breast with his own ornamental dagger.
Enter Inspector Peter Anthony Carmichael of Scotland Yard, sent from London to investigate the murder, who notices right away that the red substance on the victim’s nightgown is not blood but lipstick of the liquid kind. During his investigation, DI Carmichael uncovers more and more possible motives and suspects. When, a day later, an attempt is made on Lord Eversley’s life, which leaves the attacker dead, the case gets murkier than ever. Will the Inspector be able to find the real culprit after all and bring him to justice? Well, I will leave you to discover that for yourself.
You may ask now, why review a crime mystery on SFCrowsnest? Let me explain: ‘Farthing’ does not take place in our timeline, it is an alternative history novel. The world of ‘The Small Change Trilogy’ digresses from our timeline sometime around the 1930s. Left alone by an increasingly isolationist USA and having lost all their European allies to Germany, a group of upper-class politicians, the so-called Farthing Set, overthrow Churchill. In 1941, they broker a peace agreement between Great Britain and Nazi Germany, triggered by the Hess mission. The murder victim, Sir James Thirkie, was in fact the negotiator of the peace agreement and therefore a quite prominent person with a lot of enemies, one might wisely add.
Lucy Kahn and Inspector Carmichael accompany the reader throughout the novel as alternating viewpoint characters. The Inspector’s chapters are written in the third person whereas Lucy’s parts read like diary entries. The Inspector comes across as quite competent while Lucy seems rather naïve: She is young and has led a sheltered life up to her marriage to David Kahn, which took place to the disapproval of her parents. Not only are their voices quite distinctive, Walton does a very good job in characterising even characters who are not directly in the spotlight with just a few words.
Walton has a good eye for the time in which she has set the novel. Class distinctions are present without being obnoxious, as are political ideas and the overall atmosphere of post-war Britain. Underneath it all lingers the notion that bad things can happen in good places: Here we are shown a Great Britain slowly sliding into fascism.
Jo Walton’s mastery shows in her ability to subtly shift from jolly murder mystery to political thriller without losing her audience on the way. ‘Farthing’ is a very good read. It is not only entertaining; Jo Walton also gives us a lot to think about. She is definitely an author to watch out for. Fans of alternative history or of a good murder mystery will enjoy this novel immensely, as will lovers of political thrillers.
(pub: Corsair/Constable Robinson, 2014. 316 page small enlarged paperback Price: £ 7.99 (UK). ISBN: 978-1-4721-1297-2)
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