Farthing (Small Change, volume 1)
By Jo Walton
2006’s Farthing is the first volume in Jo Walton’s Small Change trilogy. This short novel was followed by 2007’s Ha’penny and 2008’s Half a Crown.
If British mysteries are any guide, England’s stately homes, rising very so picturesquely out of a verdant countryside, exist primarily to provide suitably isolated locations for spectacular murders, murders sufficiently puzzling to justify the attention of the Empire’s greatest minds. Farthing is no exception: not only does it live up to genre expectations by quickly presenting readers with a gruesomely murdered and artistically posed corpse, but the dead man is a man beloved by all England. He is no less than the great Sir James Thirkie, the architect of the peace between Britain and Nazi Germany.
Of course, any reasonable policeman presented with this case would immediately check to see if there were any Bolshies or Jews lurking around, communists and Jews having taken Britain’s truce with Germany particularly poorly. As it happens, there is a Jew in residence; David Kahn is present because he and his wife Lucy, an upper-cruster by blood before her marriage put her beyond the pale, are guests of the house. There is also a Bolshie in the bushes, but since he is dead, he won’t be telling the police anything.
All the evidence suggests a Jewish killer and David is ever so conveniently right there as a suspect. Inspector Carmichael, oddly enough, feels that there are too many puzzling details about the case for him to accept the obvious solution. Why would a man as smart as David leave evidence that pointed to him? And how is it that Thirkie was already dead when he was stabbed?
Lucy is convinced David must be innocent. If that’s true, then someone has gone to a lot of trouble to entice David to the scene of the crime so that he can be framed. Which means the murder was very definitely premeditated.
And the only suspects are her family and their friends.…
Negative stuff first: as is so often true of Alternate History, I didn’t find this history all that plausible. As well, as much as it pains me to acknowledge this, Canada in the 1940s was pretty steadfastly anti-Semitic, so it is odd that the Jews fleeing England would head for Canada. If the Canadian authorities suspected an aspiring immigrant was Jewish, they simply would not let that someone into the country.
[a paragraph based on a misapprehension has been removed]
Walton also upends stereotypes in populating all occupations with people of all orientations. The QUILTBAG characters are not confined to the usual jobs. The bisexuals are just folks, no better and no worse than the straights and … technically speaking, bury your gays/bisexuals also does not apply because the relevant deaths occur before the book opens.
After a decade of Downton Abbey’s boot-licking subservience to the aristocratic class, it is refreshing to read a book about nasty aristocrats, elite schemers who could give Remains of the Day’s Lord Darlington lessons in being a shit.
Walton has a certain amount of fun raising reader expectations. Most readers will be familiar with the cozy mystery, and in particular with the subgenre of country estate cozies, of which there are too many examples to name. The reader will soon enough discover that her book belongs to a related but very different genre: the Nazi Britain police procedural, of which SS-GB may be the most well-known example. The two books are very different, but the moral landscape on which they exist is similar, as are the minimal odds of the comfortable ending cozy fans might be expecting. Since the moral landscape is fundamentally broken, any return to normalcy is by definition tragic.
Farthing was nominated for the Sidewise, the Quill, and the Nebula, and it came in fifth in its category in the relevant Locus Poll.
Farthing may bepurchased here.