Sunday, November 27, 2011

A far from cozy mystery

Farthing, Jo Walton

While reading a review of Farthing over on Shelf Love, I had the immediate and oh-so-familiar feeling of "I need to read that," which sent me looking for a copy.  I'm very glad that I did, because this is a seriously good book.  It is a country-house mystery, set in England in the spring of 1949, but it is far from the traditional "cozy."  In this England, a peace treaty with Germany in 1941 ended the Battle of Britain, bringing the country "Peace with Honour."  Hitler rules the Continent, though the Reich is mired in a seemingly-endless war with Russia.  The United States, under President Lindbergh, holds to its isolationist line (after reading Anne Morrow Lindbergh's diaries, I think she would have been an invisible and personally miserable First Lady).  In Britain, despite the peace, economic conditions are precarious, and anti-semitism is rampant, as are xenophobia and homophobia.

As the story opens, Lucy Kahn and her husband David are spending the weekend at Farthing, the country home of her parents, Lord and Lady Eversley.  The house has given its name to the Farthing set, a group within the Conservative Party, one of whom, Sir James Thirkie, negotiated the "Peace with Honour."  The set, while influential, has moved to the fringes of power but hopes to return to the center.  Lucy, however, has taken a step almost unthinkable for one of her class and position by marrying David Kahn, a Jew, over the objections of parents, friends, the press and even the general public.

The first chapter is in Lucy's voice, and she is an immediately appealing character.  Her voice draws the reader into the story from the first page. She describes herself as "scatterbrained and not really very bright," but the reader sees her as clear-sighted, loyal, loving - and brave.  She is also plain-spoken, to a fault sometimes, and her attempts to catch her own words back are touching and revealing.  Lucy's chapters alternate with those focused on a second character, Inspector Peter Carmichael.  His chapters are in the third-person, which creates a distance from the character, in contrast to Lucy's.  Carmichael is a complex character whose background is gradually revealed.  It is only at the end of the story that the reader learns why he was assigned to this case.  He is sent from Scotland Yard to investigate the murder of Sir James, found in his bedroom with a yellow Star of David pinned to his chest by an antique dagger.  On that evidence alone, David Kahn immediately becomes a suspect, such is the prevailing anti-semitism and the fear of anarchists (many of them Jews, in the public mind).

To say more about this book risks spoilers.  And while the mystery itself is interesting, it is Jo Walton's  alternate history and the England it produced that are so fascinating, as are the characters, particularly Lucy.  My only quibble is a factual one: Sir James, a baronet, would not sit in the House of Lords.  Since much of the story turns on his career in politics, it seems a strange error.

This is a three-book series, and I am very much looking forward to the next one, Ha'penny.


  1. This sounds like a unique mixture of alternate history and mystery - I like it! I haven't read many alternate history novels because they seem silly somehow, but this is appealing to me.

  2. I enjoy time-travel stories, where either you *can't* alter history, or it's too dangerous to do so, but I haven't read much alt-history fiction. I remember one book about the Civil War, "If the South Had Won" or something like that.


Thank you for taking the time to read, and to comment. I always enjoy hearing different points of view about the books I am reading, even if we disagree!