It’s 1949 in Britain, but it’s not the war-devastated, rationed, weary, triumphant Britain we know. This is an alternate Britain, which, during the Blitz in 1941, concluded a “Peace With Honour” with Hitler. Now the Reich dominates the Continent, but ends at the Channel. Britain itself, friends with the Reich, is slowly sliding into fascism: Jews are feared and distrusted, and more and more power is in the hands of fewer and fewer. The “Farthing set,” those who concluded the peace, are the greediest for power, and the most cunning, and the most ruthless.
The book takes the form of a murder mystery, with two narrators. First, we have the first-person narration of Lucy Kahn, a daughter of one of the most important members of the Farthing set, but distanced from her society because she has married a Jew. The other is the third-person narration of a young Lancashire detective from Scotland Yard, Carmichael, as he tries to get past all the politics, the class issues, the sex, the Jew-baiting, and the hostility in order to find out who really killed James Thirkie, architect of the Peace with Honour. At first, I thought this alternate narration was going to be jarring and gimmicky, especially since the voices are so different: Lucy is breathless and slightly inarticulate and uses her own private vocabulary in a half-crazy Mitford way, while the sections that follow Carmichael are sensible, calm, thoughtful, and come from a working man’s perspective. After a couple of chapters, though, I lost my skepticism. Walton really makes this work. The narrators each fill in bits of information the other couldn’t know, and confirm things we might have been skeptical about. The switches back and forth also increase suspense. What is happening to Lucy and her husband when we’re with Carmichael? What is Carmichael finding out when we’re with Lucy?
One thing I thought was interesting about this book was the way Walton played with homosexual relationships and characters. Homosexuality is illegal in Walton’s 1949 Britain — well, of course it is, it was in real life. But many of the characters in Farthing, both major and minor, are either currently having or have had gay or lesbian relationships in the past. The way this serves as both comfort and danger — the source of love, and also ruin and blackmail — can’t help but trigger thoughts of what happened to gay and lesbian people under the Reich.
Walton doesn’t shy away from her subject matter here. She treats the mystery fairly, offering clues and working to solve the problem of James Thirkie’s murder. In one way, then, this is a particularly well-written and interesting country-house murder mystery — almost a “cozy.” But in another sense, it’s not cozy at all. Twice, Lucy uses a metaphor, comparing her comfortable Farthing-set life to a tiny strip of flower garden surrounded by acres and acres of manure. Walton does some interesting things to show the terror and unpredictability of a nascent fascist state, and the way it affects and compromises even those who might be supposed to be beyond the reach of the worst of it. As I read, especially toward the beginning, where the Peace With Honour is described, I kept hissing in breath: it was far, far too plausible for my liking.
My one real criticism of this novel was that I wished Walton had made her characters a little less black-and-white. Generally speaking, there are the Farthing set, who are not just greedy for power, but personally selfish, vicious, cruel, and bigoted, and there are the others, who are generous, loving, sensible, and kind. Granted, there is one character we admire through the book who winds up morally compromised, but we still have the sense that he “had no choice” (a term I loathe, as we always have the choice.) This was an irritation, though, rather than something that ruined the book for me.
This was a good book, and it kept getting better. It got better even after I put it down, because I kept thinking about it. Many thanks to Jenny at Jenny’s Books for recommending it, and I look forward to the next in the trilogy, Ha’penny.