This is the second in Jo Walton's trilogy of books, set in an alternate world where the course of the Second World War took a very different turn than in our own. While America sat out the war, England made peace with Germany in 1941, the "Farthing" treaty negotiated by political and social leaders with fascist leanings themselves. Hitler now rules the Continent, though the Reich is still at war with Stalin's Russia (there is no mention of Japan or the situation in the Far East). The first book in the series, Farthing, which I reviewed back in November, evokes a classic Golden Age mystery: Sir James Thirkie, the leader of the "Farthing" set, is murdered during a country weekend at the home of Lord and Lady Eversley.
Ha'penny opens with a compelling first line: "They don't hang people like me." The speaker is Viola Larkin, one of six sisters, the famous (or infamous) daughters of Lord Carnforth, who are clearly meant to invoke the Mitford sisters. One married Himmler because she couldn't get Hitler, another is a communist, the youngest married the Duke of Lancashire. The oldest, killed in the Blitz, was the first wife of the now-murdered James Thirkie. Viola has escaped her family and its constraints to a successful career on the stage. As the story opens, she is offered the role of Hamlet in a cross-casting version of the play. The director confides that the opening night will be a gala, with Adolf Hitler himself in the audience. Later that day, Viola learns that the actress chosen to play Hamlet's mother Gertrude has been killed by an explosion in her home.
Assigned to investigate the explosion is Inspector Peter Carmichael of Scotland Yard. Carmichael solved the murder of Sir James, but he was forced by his superiors to help frame an innocent man for the crime. These superiors now know that he is gay, and in their virulently homophobic society this makes him vulnerable to pressure and even blackmail. As in Farthing, the story is told in chapters that alternate between Viola's first-person narration and third-person from Carmichael's point of view. He investigates the actress Lauria Gilmore, who the evidence suggests was building a bomb in her home, which exploded and killed her. Viola, meanwhile, finds that there is more than just the play connecting her to the dead woman.
To say too much about the plot risks spoilers. Unlike Farthing, though, this book is more a thriller than a mystery. It reminded me so much of John Le Carré's The Little Drummer Girl, also centered on an actress, Charlie, who is recruited for a very different and difficult role. Like Le Carré and like Josephine Tey, Walton vividly evokes the world of the theater, and I found the play itself unexpectedly fascinating. The director casts Hamlet as a woman:
"Consider Hamlet, daughter and heir to Denmark. How much more likely that her uncle would usurp? How more more difficult that she assert herself? Hesitation would be much more natural than for a man. Her relationship with Gertrude, with Claudius works perfectly. Horatio wishes to be more than a friend . . . Laertes too, Laertes is Hamlet's true love, which makes the end sing. In fact, the whole play makes much more sense this way."I enjoyed watching the cast work out this version of the play, as they thought through the different emphases, the changed relationships. And this book made me want to re-read both Hamlet and The Little Drummer Girl. I have the third book of the series, Half a Crown, already on the TBR stacks (and I recently added a fourth of Walton's books, Tooth and Claw, which Claire from A Captive Reader described as "Trollope with dragons" - but that one will have to wait til the end of the TBR challenge).