Farthing by Walton, Jo, 2006

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Jo Walton's excellent literary whodunit, Farthing is an alternate history political thriller set in post World War II England. In it a group of Conservative politicians calling themselves the "Farthing Set," crafted the "Peace with Honour" during the Blitz, thus ending the war and stopping Hitler's legions on the French side of the Channel. Hitler was allowed to retain Europe and the United Kingdom was allowed to retain its sovereignty, its Empire, its Jewry, and was given the former European colonies of Africa so that Nazi Germany could turn its attention to the Soviet Union. Nine years after the Peace members of the Farthing Set have achieved much, and advanced their political careers considerably. But now one of them, Sir James Thirkie, has been murdered, and it's Investigator Carmichael's job to figure out who killed him.

I have to admit, overall I loved this book, though I really hated the first half. Sir James was murdered while at a party in the South of England that was attended by all kinds of important politicians. Inspector Carmichael was dispatched from Scotland Yard the morning that the body was discovered and promptly locked down the property called "Farthing" for the amount of yearly rent the residents paid to the Crown. For the entire first half of the book Carmichael sat in a study that he had commandeered, drank tea, interviewed party-goers and took calls from Scotland Yard. It was quite boring, and with all the politics and bed-swapping that had been going on with the Farthing Set and their hangers-on, it got quite complicated remembering who had done what to whom. Fortunately Walton saw fit to summarize everything every fifty pages or so, keeping the confusion to a minimum.

The gist of the story is this: Sir James was discovered in his dressing room early one morning with a knife stuck into his chest - through a Star of David, no less - with a vat of cheap lipstick poured over the wound. Several persons were at the party who had motive to kill Sir James. First was David Kahn, the English-born Jewish husband of Lucy (one of two main characters, the other being Carmichael), who was daughter of Lord and Lady Eversley. The Lord Eversely was one of the Farthing Set, and a good friend to Sir James. Also present was Sir James' wife, Angela, and Normanby, another of the Farthing Set and many others including numerous servants. The party was thrown together at a moment's notice to celebrate an upcoming vote in Parliament where it was certain that Sir James would be made the next Prime Minister. Lucy and David were invited by Lucy's mother, who's mutual hatred for her daughter might have equaled the hatred the she felt for Lucy's husband, David, a "dirty Jew." Suspicion from many - not including Lucy or Carmichael - immediately fell on David. As a Jew many believed that he may have done it to strike back for the way that the Farthing Set abandoned the European Jewry to certain death, or for the way that English Jews were treated. As Carmichael investigated he concluded that there was really no evidence of David's involvement and turned his attention to those with personal or political motives to do in Sir James.

One of the first things that Carmichael realized was that Sir James' body was moved after death. He died of carbon monoxide poisoning, indicating that a car was the murder weapon, and was stabbed post mortem. To complicate matters, the day after the murder a man with a rifle attached Lord Eversely and Lucy while they were on horseback. Lord Eversely killed the attacker, then found a Bolshevik card in his pocket. Not really believing a Bolshevik plot or a Jewish one, Carmichael uncovered a web of homosexual and heterosexual affairs among the party-goers - including Normanby, Sir James' wife, her sister, and others - and a even more real feeling political motive for the elimination of Sir James.

The second half of the book moves much more swiftly then the first. Carmichael is pressured by Scotland Yard to let the party-goers leave to return to London, as the MP's in the group have an important vote to participate in. David and Lucy are left at Farthing with David under house arrest while Carmichael continues to investigate. But no matter how much more Carmichael learns, there is mounting pressure to arrest David. When eventually a warrant is sworn out for his arrest Carmichael calls Lucy and gives her a heads up. Lucy and David escape to a friend in Portsmouth, a Quaker named Abby who was Lucy's governess as a young girl and now was a way-station on the underground railroad that moved Jewish children from lands newly conquered by the Nazis to Brazil or Canada.

Giving away the resolution of a whodunit is even beyond the pale for me, so I'll stop talking about the plot now. But know that this is not a simple murder mystery/political thriller. Carmichael himself becomes a victim in the end because of his intelligence, his compassion and his own homosexual love affair with Jack, his servant. The ending of this book actually crushed my spirit a bit - especially in the end when Carmichael is outed by his assistant to his bosses then his will and sense of right and wrong are twisted to the breaking poing - but the book on the whole was so well written that I can't gripe too much about the experience. Walton is obviously an expert at writing Dorothy Sayers type mysteries, but there is so much more food for though in this book that I doubt I'll stop thinking about it anytime soon. She makes some excellent points about the treatment lower classes by the highest, says much about peoples prejudices by focusing on the plight of an important genre fixture, The Other. I was quite moved by Walton's examination of character. She made it crystal clear that especially in a hierarchical system a race for survival for one is always a survival race for all.

The most frightening thing about this book was at the very end Walton alluded to a theater opening in Covent Gardens where Hitler would be the guest of Normanby. I have not read either of this book's sequels, Ha' Penny or Half a Crown, but I can imagine that the England of this world will be loosening up any time in the near future, and in fact with a visit from Hitler, I suppose that the Isolationist States of America and President Lindbergh had better start building up a few tanks and planes. The beginning of the story very subtly suggests the first movement of the UK's slide towards fascism. The saddest part of the book is that a real opportunity existed to stop it, but the entrenched political system just threw up too many road blocks. Anyway, tomorrow I'll stop at the book store and pick up the sequel.

Reviewed by GTT · Rating Rating of 4 star(s)


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