Farthing: A country-house murder mystery in a dark alternate timeline

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At first glance, it seems like Farthing, Book One in Jo Walton’s SMALL CHANGE trilogy, could have been written by Agatha Christie, Dorothy Sayers or Elizabeth George. At a house party in the home of an aristocratic British family, a guest is found dead, his body staged to throw suspicion on another guest specifically. Soon clouds of secrets, lies, betrayals and adulteries fill the air. Peter Carmichael, the Scotland Yard Inspector sent to investigate, must fight his way through those clouds, dealing with aristocratic privilege and interference from his own higher-ups, if he is to reveal the truth.

There’s nothing science-fictional about that, you might think, except for one small change. In the world of Farthing, America did not enter World War II. Britain and Germany met in 1941 and agreed to a treaty — “peace with honor,” the Brits call it, and now, eight years later, almost all of central Europe is part of the Reich, which is still warring with Stalin. The group of policy makers and politicians who brokered this peace are called the Farthing Set, and at their center are Lord and Lady Eversley. The murder took place at their country estate, Farthing Castle.

Walton maintains the tone of a mystery perfectly, while dropping in asides and details that show us how bad things are getting in Britain. Lucy Kahn is the rebellious Eversley daughter, who chose to marry David Kahn, a Jew. She has been ostracized by her mother (although still on fairly good terms with her father), but now she and David have suddenly been invited to the house party. When the body of James Thirkie is found stabbed in his dressing room, a cloth Star of David pinned to his chest, they realize that David is meant to be the scapegoat for the murder.

In alternating chapters, Walton uses a third person point of view to show Carmichael’s investigation and a first-person narrative from Lucy to tell the story. Lucy seems naïve at first, but as Farthing progresses she become its conscience. Despite her sense of denial at the beginning, Lucy is surprisingly sophisticated in some ways, which she attributes to the positive influence of her governess, Abby, and her older brother, Hugh, who died in the war. Hugh and Lucy developed a conversational code for certain things: the use of city or country names. Hugh, for example, explains that while many people thought adultery was “Paris,” or romantic, is it really more like “Bognor,” a faded, vulgar resort town that had seen better days. This is a charming conceit that pays off for the reader when Lucy begins defining certain men as “Athenian,” preferring men as sexual partners, or “Macedonian” for bisexual. Sexuality, hypocrisy and bigotry are big themes in this book and Walton gives us a number of shadings on those topics.

Walton expertly manipulates familiar mystery tropes. The police develop a timeline only to discover that it’s useless; they discover that the body has been not only staged, but moved; no single theory accounts for all of the facts. Underneath the layer of the investigation, Walton shares information with the reader about exactly what is happening. Carmichael, reading a report on the deceased, notes that Thirkie was about to pass a new law that would end public higher education in Britain. He doesn’t see the significance, but we do.

The Farthing Set does not come off well here. Possibly no one except the murder victim has a sincere motive for engineering Britain’s slide into fascism. These aristocrats are driven purely by power and spite. Lucy meditates that her life before David had been like a path lined with flowers; beyond the flowers, just out of sight, are acres of manure piles, which is what is left for others. Later she thinks back to this image, deciding that she won’t be someone who ever pushes another person into the manure pile just to keep her garden.

The Farthing Set has exploited people’s fear and their distrust of the Other to come to power. The callousness of the everyday person to the plight of European Jews is chillingly expressed by Carmichael’s own sergeant, Royston, as they discuss the cloth badges that Jews in the Reich are forced to buy and wear:

“…In the Reich, they are mass produced and sold, not individually issued as such. However, they have serial numbers, and the Jews purchasing them must use ration coupons to do so.” Royston grinned.

“You think that’s funny, sergeant?”

“Making them use their own ration cards to buy their stars? Yes, sir. You don’t?”

Carmichael shook his head. “It must be a very black kind of humor.”

While the clues are well-laid and Walton plays fair with the reader, this is more of a thriller than a mystery. We worry that David will end up hanged for a murder he had nothing to do with. Even though the clues are there, the reasons for the murder and some details are not providing until very close to the end. Carmichael both succeeds and fails. He solves the mystery but justice is not served. By doing the right thing, Carmichael has compromised himself.

Farthing was originally published in 2006. It isn’t hard to imagine what governmental goings-on might have inspired Walton to write a story about politicians using fear, lies and bigotry to further their own ends. This is a dark book with a dark ending, but there is still some hope. The voices of Lucy and Carmichael offer models of courage and decency. This is well worth the read.

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MARION DEEDS, with us since March 2011, is retired from a 35-year career with county government, where she met enough interesting characters and heard enough zany stories to inspire at least two trilogies’ worth of fantasy fiction. Currently she spends part of her time working at a local used bookstore. She is an aspiring writer herself and, in the 1990s, had short fiction published in small magazines like Night Terrors, Aberrations, and in the cross-genre anthology The Magic Within. On her blog Deeds & Words, she reviews many types of books and follows developments in food policy and other topics.

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  1. Charlie Hanlon /
    Terrific ReadTerrific read, enjoyable and on par with the Morse/Lewis/Endeavor mysteries...Looking forward to the rest of the series.
  2. Charlie Hanlon /
    Jo Walton is so versatileA four star read.

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