In Farthing, the first book of this alternate-history trilogy, Jo Walton set the stage: instead of conducting the Battle of Britain, a group of well-connected, upper-crust families overthrew Churchill and concluded what came to be known as the “Farthing Peace.” Under the direction of these families, the country began a gentle descent into fascism: loss of liberty, suspicion of Jews and Communists, limitation of the vote. Crimes were manufactured and pinned on anyone politically convenient, and Carmichael, the inspector in charge of the crime in Farthing, was too morally compromised to help.
As Ha’penny opens, Carmichael has decided that he will leave the police force after wrapping up this last case: a bomb that has exploded in the home of a former actress. At the same time, Viola Lark (formerly Larkin) accepts the part of Hamlet in a gender-switched production. The six Larkin sisters — one a Communist, one married to Himmler, one only interested in her hounds and horses — is this sounding familiar yet? yes, these are fictionalized Mitford sisters — haven’t been in touch for years, but when Viola’s sister Siddy contacts her, sounding desperate, Viola has to respond. When Viola finds herself pulled, against her will, into a plot to murder Hitler and the Prime Minister on opening night, she is working against Carmichael, against her own desires, and against the country’s incremental slide into fascism.
Farthing was a genuine murder mystery, and Ha’penny is more of a thriller. No clues to follow here — you know what’s going on. That structure suits the setting better, because in fact there’s less to wonder about. The pace is quick: there will be this one chance, and perhaps this one only, to get an unusual group of people together to achieve something that seems impossible, and that at least one of them doesn’t want to do.
As in Farthing, Walton alternates the narration by chapter, with third-person narration for Carmichael and first-person narration for Viola. It’s wonderfully done. Viola’s voice hits all the right notes: nervous, for instance, until she’s talking about her tradecraft, when she’s perfectly sure of herself. The most interesting thing, for me, was hearing from a first-person point of view the way fear overwhelms common sense, and the way it’s possible to justify almost anything at all. What happens on the Continent isn’t our business. That can’t happen here. It’s just Jews. If I fight, they’ll have my family. If I work within the system, I can help people. It’s horribly plausible; it so easily could have gone this way. (There are passing references to a quasi-fascist leader in America, too — a President Lindbergh.) Finishing the book and remembering that England really did fight was like waking from a bad dream.
I loved Farthing, and I think I waited so long to read Ha’penny because I didn’t think it would be as good. I was mistaken. It was just as good, or perhaps (with the exception of the overwrought references to ha’pennies) better. It seems easy to change the course of events when they have just begun. What about when they are settled, and taken for granted? What sort of eyes must we have to see things clear? I look forward to the last book in the series, and I won’t wait so long to read it.
Thanks to Jenny of Jenny’s Books for introducing me!