Alas, another case of the right reader, wrong book. I went into Farthing with rather high expectations, I confess. Walton has won a couple of awards for other works–including the World Fantasy Award–and this one was nominated for a Nebula and Locus among others. When this series got several mentions on The Incomparable (produced by 5by5), a podcast series devoted to all things geek sci-fi, I became tempted to try it. When the book arrived from the library, I was surprised to discover it was more alt-history than either fantasy or sci-fi. Well, I thought, I can manage. I rather love the gentle English mysteries, and I’m a huge fan of Connie Willis‘ To Say Nothing of the Dog. Within pages, it referenced Three Men in a Boat, another English tale that Willis references. Okay. Might kind of familiar. Little did I realize I was not in for a charming body-in-the-library English romp but more an exploration of the Third Reich and England, if history had gone another way.
It begins with the the gentle tones of a Dorothy Sayers mystery, narrated by a daffy Wooster-like aristocratic lead, Lucy. She’s trying to do up her hair at the same time she perplexedly comforts her charming Jewish husband that the slight he just endured wasn’t personally meant. Of course, she’s soothing him; she understands it was meant, as Jewish people aren’t considered equal with the upper-crust crowd. The book begins to take on more ominous tones; not only are we dealing with the general foibles of the gentry (dressing for dinner? Fixing hair over feelings?), but underlying class and racial divides as well. Hmm. Still as some potential to explore the situation, only in a multi-culti kind of way. Okay, that’s cool.
Then the body is found; not only is a guest at the house party murdered, but his body is desecrated with a Jewish star, used on the Continent to identify Jews. The guests are suspicious of David, especially as the man killed is the one who brokered the peace between the governments of Britain and the Third Reich. But suspecting David seems obvious, and several herrings are deployed our way by his ridiculous widow and her sister–coincidentally, the victim’s lover. Our heroine narrates these details in her charmingly silly way, protective of her husband, disgusted at the widow, but being careful that her thought “train didn’t leave the station before I have a chance to stop it.”
The viewpoint begins to alternate with that of a gay Scotland Yard Inspector. It starts to become clear that being gay is not acceptable, much like being Jewish, so the Inspector is largely closeted. Homosexuality and bisexuality becomes a mirror for the Jewish issue; a disenfranchised identity that is shared by many, however hypocritically. (There’s a strange sub-bit here where Lucy shows her charming daffiness by sharing the terms she and her brother used for gay/bi/straight, including ‘Athenean’). His own experiences lend him certain sympathies with David. I had hopes that the murderer would be successfully uncovered, as the Inspector showed definite signs of brains. His efforts to solve the case are troubled by the obligatory second-strike, only this time it was Bolsheviks. Inspector Carmichael struggles to reconcile these incongruous leads, but catches a break or two though determined detective work.
Suddenly, the storyline goes someplace darker, dropping the countryside romp for an exploration on politics, society and ethics. The last half of the book weren’t about the murder as much as they were about politics. Lucy is no longer charming and daffy; she’s impotent and waking to ugly realities. David is as well, as his natural tendency towards showing a positive example fails him. While I felt Walton avoided overt diatribes, politics around Hitler and Stalin are rarely subtle, and were used in overbearing fashion here. Frankly, I felt it also lacked creativity. Germany did a fine stand-in as the ultimate villain, but by the end, Britain wasn’t far behind. The issues of sexuality seem a forced metaphor for the ways in which the ruling class spouts a party line but doesn’t follow it. However, it seemed generally a crutch to explain relationships, intention and morality.
Overall, it left a bitter taste in my mouth for so many reasons–the disappointing story, anything involving the Third Reich, a tacked-on ending, and an interesting plot gone so wrong. It just isn’t a congruous narrative; it wants to be both meat and meringue, and so succeeds at neither.