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You're wondering why a book that was nominated for a major science fiction award is being reviewed here as a mystery. Jo Walton's FARTHING is a classic example of the best of books that cross lines and genres. It's a mystery, it's an alternate history and it's wonderful.
Jo Walton, a native of Wales, is best known as a fantasy writer. Her first novel won the Campbell Award in 2002. FARTHING, however, is set in a version of 1940s England, but not one you will recognize. In this tale, due to the efforts of some of the most conservative of English upper class gents, England negotiated peace with Adolf Hitler, essentially ceding him Europe and Russia if only he would leave Britain alone.
Back in the early 1940s, Churchill was dumped and England, thanks to the aristocrats of the 'Farthing set' (members of an extended family and clan and friends), is at peace. Except, that is, for the nasty trade unionists and Bolsheviks and Communists and Jews who are always making trouble. It's a troubled peace, then, since Russia and Germany are still fighting and most of Europe is under German control.
This is at once an expansive mild-blowing novel of "what it?" and a manor house mystery, among the wealthy and titled. Most of the guests visiting Farthing for the weekend will have new jobs next week, as they are powerful titled people on the right side of government.
The sweet young thing role, played by Lucy, shows a young woman born to entitlement and wealth who is not quite a fluff-brained as she believes she is. While yes, she has done what was expected of her for a long time, that ended when she married David Kahn. While she believes David her intellectual superior in every way, it's still Lucy who is instrumental in figuring out who was behind the murder of Sir James Thirkie, the man most responsible for negotiating the peace with Hitler. She's not as fluffy as she appears. And she has enough backbone to stand up to her dreadful snob (and worse) of a mother when it counts.
The classic form here – a murder in a manor house, Scotland Yard galloping to the rescue, class snobbery, intrigue, affairs, bribery and more – is overlaid with the vastly detailed, brilliantly laid out Britain where everything is as it was, and England is not at war. There's a lot of paranoia and distrust everywhere. Anyone who might be a trade unionist is of course a communist (or Bolshevik, anarchist or all of the above) and anti-Semitism is allowed to run free all over. Lucy is thought either dim-witted, demented or a silly young girl trying to rebel because she chose not one of the dim young men of her class, but married for love.
While reading FARTHING the second time, I found weaknesses (and they are the sort that I hesitate to mention for fear of spoilers), but the strength in this book is the brilliantly-woven world Walton creates. Her mother and most of the Farthing set believe without question that they are superior just by being born upper class. A murder is an inconvenience when one simply must be back in London by Tuesday. One must have servants to do everything; dressing oneself is considered an odd affectation.
There are so many smart things about this book; you can almost miss some of the clever ways in which Walton has told her story (wait until you learn who the American President is in this time stream).
The Scotland Yard detective, Carmichael, is in some ways irrelevant, because the story can be told from Lucy's perspective. But that would weaken the book and you're glad there's a professional available who does have access to records and reports, and can investigate why someone took a shot at Lord Eversley and Lucy while they were out riding. There are obvious clues, and Carmichael has the brains to see they're a little too obvious and possibly planted.
Some readers might be surprised at this book, written by someone who, until FARTHING was responsible for books with dragons on the covers. (But don't knock dragons. There are some fabulous stories out there about dragons). That Walton wrote FARTHING in three weeks is amazing, as it does not show any signs of haste, not even the hurry-up ending so common for authors new to the mystery genre.
While FARTHING stands alone, I'll be very interested to see how a sadder but wiser Lucy and David continue their lives in the world of 1949 where fascism is accepted as a viable political concept, where Jews all over Europe are required to wear yellow stars (a practice soon to arrive in Britain, I would guess with some of the new politicians in charge) and they cannot emigrate to the United States as they are not wanted. Walton's skill at demonstrating the casual elitism and snobbism of Lucy's family and the Farthing set is notable. Lucy has not chosen an easy path, as is demonstrated by the sometimes snide, sometimes outrageous, comments and behavior she witnesses on the part of both upstairs and downstairs.
You can absolutely read FARTHING without referring to any politics of today. The more you know about history I suspect, the more intriguing the story is and the more forgivable some of Walton's slips are. Perhaps I'm a little too forgiving about the murder plot as in some ways – the resolution seemed not very important compared to other elements of the book – but no matter. It's a book worth reading on several levels.
Reviewed by Andi Shechter, May 2007
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