Farthing, by Jo Walton

(Tor, August 2006)

Reviewed by Lisa Goldstein, Locus, May 2006

Is there anything Jo Walton can't write? So far she's given us a Victorian novel of manners (with dragons) and an Arthurian epic — and to further complicate matters she calls the latter science fiction, since it takes place in an alternate world, with alternate versions of the characters. And now, with Farthing, she's written an English country house mystery.

But, this being Walton, it's nowhere near as simple as that. For one thing, Farthing is another alternate history, one in which conservatives in the British government negotiate a separate peace with the Nazis, leaving the rest of Europe to Hitler. These same conservatives, called the Farthing set after the country house where they meet, are on the rise in British politics, and by 1949 they are planning a sharp turn to the right. Fascism is such a distinct possibility, in fact, that in this world the book Orwell writes is called Nineteen Seventy-four.

Lucy Eversley grew up at Farthing, and her parents are central members of the set. But she has rebelled against their values and married a Jew, David Kahn. As the book opens a reconciliation seems in the offing: the couple is invited to Farthing for a political weekend. Once there, however, they are subjected to a good deal of bigotry, veiled and explicit — and this points up another way in which Walton is not your usual cozy mystery writer: she deals with prejudice and class in ways Sayers and Christie never dreamed of.

Like these writers, though, she knows her milieu, and her evocation of an English party in the country is pitch-perfect. She is a superb guide to the customs and attitudes of that mysterious people, the British upper class, able to explain everything from the nuances of a butler's greeting to how a Cabinet is formed.

Her characters, too, seem wonderfully authentic. Lucy, for example, is both a part of her place and time and a unique individual: slightly scattered and absentminded on the surface but with a rock-solid notion of who she is and what she wants, possessing the ability to blend in with her class while keeping an ironic distance from it. (She is a clear homage to Lucy Vereker in Peter Dickinson's The Yellow Room Conspiracy, and fans of Dickinson's excellent mysteries should put down this review right now and go get Walton's book.) The only character not fully three-dimensional is David, who suffers the fate of other representative minorities in other novels: he is a bit too perfect. Brave, handsome, intelligent, caring — give this man some flaws, for heaven's sake!

Over the weekend a prominent politician is killed in an odd and lurid fashion — stabbed with a dagger pinning a six-pointed star, and smeared with lipstick. It is so odd, in fact, that Inspector Peter Carmichael, who is sent out to investigate the crime, thinks it must have been staged; and a shooting the next day by a card-carrying Communist does nothing to change his mind. But staged for what purpose?

Farthing plays fair with the conventions of the genre, and Inspector Carmichael eventually figures out whodunit. But Walton is dealing with a larger mystery — why people do evil to one another — and here she succeeds brilliantly. She shows us what happens after the murder: how the Farthing set uses the resulting fear and uncertainty to lever themselves into power; how they enact the Patriot Act — er, the "drastic measures" they claim will keep the country safe from Jews and communists; what happens to Lucy and David, and to honest policemen, in this frightening new world.

Yes, it's topical, but it's more than that. It's a clear-eyed, passionate meditation on universal themes: injustice, civil liberties, the fear of the outsider. No wonder it reads as if it was written just this morning.

First published in Locus Magazine

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