Deftly blended, this combination of an alternate world history with an English country house mystery opens in 1949, but it’s not exactly the 1949 or England we know. Eight years earlier a group of conservative, anti-semitic politicians known as the “Farthing set” made peace with Nazi Germany, securing Britain’s borders after most of continental Europe had fallen to Hitler. The Germans continue to fight the Soviets, the American president is isolationist Charles Lindbergh, and the Jews left in Europe are living a nightmare.
Against this background, the aristocratic, politically powerful Farthing set comes together for a country weekend. The daughter of one of the couples, Lucy Kahn, is deeply in love and happily married to David, a Jewish man, so she’s surprised that her parents have invited them to join this gathering at her old family home. If it was up to her they’d skip it, she doesn’t like this group and they see her as a race traitor, but David thinks the invitation is a gesture of reconciliation so they go. But when they wake up the first morning they discover that a powerful politician has been murdered in his bed, and it quickly becomes clear that whoever did this is trying to frame David.
The story alternates between two very different voices. Lucy’s chapters chat to readers in the first person, while the point of view of Inspector Carmichael, sent by Scotland Yard to investigate the crime, is told through the third person. Carmichael is a principled, thoughtful man who has secrets of his own–he’s a homosexual. Though he’s working diligently to uncover the truth, he’s being pressured by his superiors to just arrest David and close the case.
Jo Walton’s versatility amazes me. The first books I read by her involved a simulation of Plato’s Republic, set up by the goddess Athena on the ancient island of Atlantis, but this is obviously a very different book, and she’s written it from two highly contrasting points of view. Tightly plotted, the tension builds quickly and continuously in Farthing, so by the time I was 80% in my heart was pounding and the book was impossible for me to put down. It’s the first book in a trilogy that I look forward to continuing once my adrenaline comes back down to normal levels.