One summer weekend in 1949 - but not our 1949 - the well-connected "Farthing set", a group of upper-crust English families, enjoy a country retreat. Lucy is a minor daughter in one of those families; her parents were both leading figures in the group that overthrew Churchill and negotiated peace with Herr Hitler eight years before. Despite her parents' evident disapproval, Lucy is married - happily - to a London Jew. It was therefore quite a surprise to Lucy when she and her husband, David, found themselves invited to the retreat. It's even more startling when, on the retreat's first night, a major politician of the Farthing set is found gruesomely murdered, with abundant signs that the killing was ritualistic. It quickly becomes clear to Lucy that she and David were brought to the retreat in order to pin the murder on him. Major political machinations are at stake, including an initiative in Parliament, supported by the Farthing set, to limit the right to vote to university graduates. But whoever's behind the murder, and the frame-up, didn't reckon on the principal investigator from Scotland Yard being a man with very private reasons for sympathizing with outcasts and looking beyond the obvious. As the trap slowly shuts on Lucy and David, they begin to see a way out - a way fraught with peril in a darkening world.
"If Le Carré scares you, try Jo Walton. Of course her brilliant story of a democracy selling itself out to fascism sixty years ago is just a mystery, just a thriller, just a fantasy--of course we know nothing like that could happen now. Don't we?" (Ursula K. Le Guin) "Walton crosses genres without missing a beat with this stunningly powerful alternative history…. while the whodunit plot is compelling, it's the convincing portrait of a country's incremental slide into fascism that makes this novel a standout. Mainstream readers should be enthralled as well." (Publishers Weekly)
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I wasn't sure about this book, not being a real fantasy fan, but it did have a mystery in it, and it was on sale. So I bought it, and am I glad I did! Jo Walton has crafted a mystery set in England in an alternate history, where a group called the "Farthing Set" deposed Churchill and negotiated a "peace with honor" with Hitler in 1941, in which Hitler stayed on the other side of the Channel and England remained "independent" by agreeing to measures which amount to a milder form of suppression of Jews and homosexuals than that in place in continental Europe.
The action takes place in 1948, when a vote of no confidence is scheduled in Parliament. At a house party at Farthing, the estate of some members of the Farthing Set, the man who is likely to be elected the next Prime Minister is murdered. Lucy, the daughter of Farthing's owners, and her husband David Kahn, a Jew, have come to the party at the insistence of Lucy's mother. It's not clear why they are invited until it becomes obvious that they were wanted there in order to pin the murder on David, the JEW.
The mystery story is quite good, but the real point of the book is the picture of an England which is sliding slowly and inexorably into Facsism through the machinations of the power elite (the Farthing Set) and the willingness of the public to believe the lies of the ruling politicians. Through the course of this book and the second book in this series, the suppression of Jews and homosexuals becomes more extreme, and many have been forced to flee or hide. And people in positions like police detectives are coerced into blaming the crimes of the powerful on the people with no power. Meanwhile, of course, Hitler is still Fuhrer of all of Europe, undesirables are still sent to work camps, and the war is still raging between Germany and Russia.
The story is greatly enhanced by the two narrators, John Keating and Bianca Amato. The book is written in chapters which alternate between the narration of Lucy Kahn and the third party narration of the investigation conducted by Inspector Carmichael of Scotland Yard, making the alternating narrators particularly appropriate. Both do a sterling job.
This is really a gripping tale, very complex and disquieting but definitely worth the money and the time to listen to it. Excellent!
- Nancy J "Mystery reader (especially series) and Austen lover"
I kind of wish I'd stopped with this one
This was a very odd book. I enjoyed most of it, but it was very odd. It took a bit of mental calisthenics to adapt to a 1949 London in which "Old Adolph admired England and had no territorial ambitions across the channel". Because this world's Old Adolph most certainly had all sorts of ambitions across the channel; he was drooling to get into London and execute the entire royal family.
Rather than that straight-forward and outright horror, the horror in this book is … sneakier.
"In May of 1941, the war looked dark for Britain. We and our Empire stood alone, entirely without allies. The Luftwaffe and the RAF were fighting their deadly duel above our heads. Our allies France, Belgium, Holland, Poland, and Denmark had been utterly conquered. Our ventures to defy the Reich in Norway and Greece had come to nothing, The USSR was allied to the Reich, and the increasingly isolationist USA was sending us only grudging aid. We feared and prepared for invasion. In this dark time, the Fuhrer extended a tentative offer to us. Hess flew to Britain with a tentative offer of peace, each side to keep what they had. Churchill refused to consider it, but wiser heads prevailed…"
Wiser heads prevailed, and those damned isolationists in the US held sway, and Britain made a peace with Hitler, and now most if not all of Europe is under a blanket of fascism. Being Jewish is a very, very difficult thing, when it isn't outright life-threatening, wherever you are. And Orwell imagines his dystopia happening ten years earlier than in this world. (That is a lovely subtle touch.) And the United States is led by President Lindbergh – which … Heaven forbid.
And it is in this universe that Lucy and her Jewish husband David return to her family's estate for a house party, during which there is a good old-fashioned country house murder.
There were things I did not like; Lucy uses a verbal shorthand she had developed, but the reader is not clued into exactly what she's talking about until what seemed like a ridiculous ways in. (Page 96 – looked it up. So a third of the way through the book.) It's pretty clear through context what she means by "Athenian" and "Macedonian" and so on – but not totally clear, and a little baffling as to WHY she would be saying "Athenian" and "Macedonian" and so on.
I never warmed up to most of the characters. Heaven knows Lucy's family didn't deserve warming up to…they are snobs of the first water. "How many servants do you get by with?" "Just three," David said. "A cook, a housemaid, and a kitchen maid. …" "You dress yourselves??" - Goodness me. And here I thought that was something one was taught to do as a toddler.
And Lucy – one of the two point of view characters – began to grate on me. She says, often, that she isn't too bright, though the plan she comes up with is not terrible … but her speech and behavior thoroughly agrees with the "not too bright". Is it all a front? Does she really think she's stupid (perhaps because her mother has taught her so) when she's not so dumb after all? Who knows? She is rather flighty, and certainly fanciful: to avoid spoilers, I'll just say that she develops an unshakeable certainty of something about which she couldn't possibly have a clue, and proceeds from that first moment of certainty as if what she believes is rock solid truth. Is it? Who knows?
Speaking of servants … Things are a bit odd with them in the country house where the good old country house murder takes place. I mean … they're servants, when all's said and done, employees hired and paid to do specific jobs, in a class structure which requires them to show respect to their social "betters". But here the attitudes are extraordinary – and Mrs. Simons, the housekeeper, is outright offensive. Blatantly, intentionally, viciously rude. Lucy: "I didn't like how quickly I'd resorted to threatening to sack her" – WHY? My God, are you mad? Fire that nasty cow and eject her so hard and fast she bounces twice going down the drive.
The book alternates viewpoints between Lucy, on the scene of the murder, and Inspector Carmichael, in charge of investigating said murder. And it's all rather repetitive – not even just because of dual points of view, which is handled fairly well. "He might have committed suicide." "Why would he kill himself?" then a little while later "He might have killed himself." "Why would he commit suicide?" This happens over and over.
I gave this four stars to start with, but – after some time has passed, and having listened to the ensuing two books, and just looking at the notes I made while listening to this one – I bumped it down to three. Because on the whole I really, really hated this series – and, honestly, with the level of exasperation in what I wrote at the time I'm a little shocked that I did rate it higher.