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Friday, September 7th, 2007

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[REVIEW] Farthing, by Jo Walton
Jo Walton's combination country-house "cozy" murder mystery and alternate-history political thriller Farthing tells its tale in alternate chapters, from two viewpoint characters. The first (in first-person) is Lucy Kahn (nee Eversley, and thereby hangs a tale), the estranged daughter of the politically powerful Farthing Set's main patron, who gives us the family story deftly and (in a brilliant solution to the expository problem in such books) in a convincingly scatter-brained "Oh I must tell you about Edna" way. (One flaw that many reviewers have picked in Farthing is that the Jewish character, David Kahn, is portrayed as too perfect. Perhaps such reviewers have missed the fact that he is portrayed almost entirely through the eyes of his besotted wife of eight months. Or perhaps such reviewers are cold, lonely people without love.)

The novel's second viewpoint is that of Inspector Carmichael, the intelligent (but not too much so) and sensitive (but not quite too much so) Scotland Yard man. Carmichael's chapters don't work as well, possibly because the narration is third-person, and possibly because Carmichael is a less developed character. (Admittedly, as the Scotland Yard man in a "cozy," he's true to genre form there.) Carmichael is sent to Hampshire to solve the mystery of the murder, at Farthing House, of the architect of the "heroic peace" with Hitler. I don't want to give anything away, but the transformation of the obvious red herring into state propaganda is almost too arch and acid to be believed, by the reader or anyone else -- but I'm no expert in what the great and good British public will swallow.

Many of the blurbs and comments on the cover and inside papers of Farthing emphasize the book's ability, for those blurbers and commenters at least, to illumine current events in some fashion. Indeed, an author's note at the beginning, comparing the history of fascism to reading about dead dragons only to find a live one over your shoulder, seems to justify and even encourage such a reading. Now, I'm far from an expert on the current British political scene, so I have no real idea about whether Britain is closer or not to fascism "than ever" (whatever that means), and the general apolitical tenor of the Principality of Cairo is such that I will forbear to comment on such matters, but apparently if you enjoy that sort of frisson, Farthing can deliver it to you.

I will note, speaking purely as a former student of political science, that it is a structural mystery to me that Britain hasn't already gone fascist several times, given that the last formal check on the power of the ruling party in the House of Commons fell in 1911. So I certainly can't call the AH -- namely, the slow "Finlandization" of Britain after a Nazi victory on the Continent -- implausible on that level. I'd cavil at making the break-point the Hess Mission in May 1941 (in the novel, Hess apparently succeeded in making effective contact with the Cliveden Set, here renamed and repopulated as the Farthing Set) rather than the near-run putsch against Churchill a year earlier. But Walton needed a "heroic peace," and I certainly won't say, from what I have read of the era, that the snake-pit of British aristocratic-Tory politics in the 1940s couldn't have produced such a turn of events.

Walton is also particularly good at slowly evoking the almost claustrophobic incestuousness of such politics, and her real brilliant tour de force is combining that sensation with the subgenre in which claustrophobia and incestuousness are positive virtues, namely the English country-house mystery. The mystery is actually a rather good one, with enough misdirection and hugger-mugger to delight any fan of Agatha Christie, although the tone is rather more Josephine Tey or Dorothy Sayers (all to the good, in my book). Purely on the level of interleaved genre form, Farthing is a triumph well worth a read. The rest is clotted cream on that wonderful structural scone.

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