Jo Walton is becoming one of my reliably enjoyable authors, someone whose books I will always read. That feeling was cemented as I read this alternate history series set in a version of Britain that made peace with Hitler during World War II.
All three books—Farthing, Ha’Penny, and Half a Crown—share a similar structure and a central character. When we meet Inspector Peter Carmichael in Farthing, he is a detective with Scotland Yard and he has come to Hampshire to investigate the murder of Sir James Thirkie, a member of the “Farthing Set,” a group that pressed for peace with Germany. The third-person chapters that follow Carmichael’s investigation alternate with first-person chapters by Lucy Kahn, the daughter of Lord and Lady Eversley, who were hosting a Farthing Set gathering in their home when the murder occurred under their roof.
Lucy herself is not part of the Farthing Set. In fact, she rejects her parents politics enough to have married David Kahn, a Jewish man who becomes an immediate suspect in the murder, which everyone assumes to be an act of Jewish or Communist terrorism. In this version of 1949 Britain, anti-Semitism is acceptable, but not yet established policy. This version of Britain, in fact, felt about like other versions of Britain that I’ve encountered. The country hasn’t slid into Fascism, but it hasn’t yet rejected it. And the book reads like a country house mystery with a political edge. Lucy is a charming narrator who seems a little silly to start but is much smarter than she appears. And Peter Carmichael is a professional doing his job, unwilling to let prejudice cloud his judgment.
In Ha’Penny, the Fascists are in power, and Carmichael has compromised his principles to protect Jack, the man he fell in love with during the Great War and has lived with ever since. Now, he is called on to investigate a bombing that killed a famous actress in her home.
Here, the investigation chapters alternate with chapters in the voice of Viola Lark, the daughter of a noble family who gave up her wealth to become an actress. Now, she’s preparing to take on a role of a lifetime in a gender-flipped version of Hamlet. The production grows in importance when Hitler and the new prime minister are said to be attending opening night. And Viola ends up drawn into a dangerous plot that she had no interest in.
As much as I enjoyed Farthing, I thought this book was even better. A lot of my enjoyment came from the theatre nerdery and backstage drama. Viola is not quite as clever as Lucy (or as the Oxford-bound Elvira from Half a Crown), but still… backstage drama… I couldn’t help myself. And I recognized Viola as someone who was mostly just oblivious, doing her own thing, not wanting people hurt, but not believing the worst about the world.
I was also fascinated by how this book worked on my loyalties as a reader. The book is structured as a crime thriller. When we read crime thrillers, we’re used to rooting for the detectives and hoping the criminals get caught. Carmichael is someone you want to root for, and when the criminal terrorists first reveal themselves, their approach is not one that will win readers over. So you have to keep stepping back and asking yourself who is really on the right side here.
The final book, Half a Crown, is complex in a different way. This book is set in 1960, more than a decade after the previous books. Carmichael is now the head of the Watch, Britain’s version of the Gestapo. Why would a decent man take such a job? Partly out of fear for Jack, but also because he believed he could do some good, prevent injustices, smuggle people to safety, perhaps making up for his failures to do the right thing in the past. And he was able to do that. He’s set up an entire operation inside the Watch. He’s also helped raise Elvira Royston, the daughter of a colleague who died in Ha’Penny.
Elvira is now 18 years old, and she’s preparing to be presented to the queen. She’s not interested in the marriage market, however. Her focus is on Oxford, where she will learn to succeed on her own terms. She doesn’t have much memory of pre-Fascist Britain, and she’s absorbed many of the prejudices around her.
Like Ha’Penny, this book is a thriller, and we see how both Elvira and Carmichael are in precarious situations, Elvira because she knows too little and Carmichael because he knows too much. It’s absorbing and upsetting, and the stakes feel higher than ever.
And the ending is completely ridiculous. I didn’t believe it for a second. But, you know what? I didn’t care. I wanted that ending. I longed for that ending. It is a silly fantasy, and I rolled my eyes as I saw it starting to play out. And yet… there’s a line, right at the end, that just about did me in:
But it seems to me that this government was not chosen freely, or in full knowledge of the facts. They have arrested those accused of no specific crime and held them in detention for long periods without bringing them to trial, they have created a climate of fear, they have shipped off suspects to foreign prisons where they knew they could expect bad treatment. This is not in the tradition of which we, as Britons, can be rightly proud.
And with those words, it’s all fixed. Yes, it’s a fantasy. It couldn’t happen, but I kind of enjoyed being able to revel in that fantasy for a bit. But that fantasy happened partly because the people started to notice and to speak. So there’s work to do in our world, too.
Edited to add: I was just poking around on Jo Walton’s website and found this interesting post on the unfortunate relevance of the Small Change books.