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Farthing    by Jo Walton order for
by Jo Walton
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Tor, 2013 (2006)
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* * *   Reviewed by Hilary Williamson

It begins with the flavor of an Agatha Christie whodunit in an elegant upper class setting - the story's heroine even reminded me of Christie's charming Tuppence. Lucy Kahn (née Eversley) seems a little scattered, and tends to blurt out whatever comes into her head. But she's smarter than she appears to be on the surface, which is just as well, given what is ahead for her. And this is not a Christie mystery, but rather one set in England in an alternate history, in which - after the initial fighting in World War II - the upper-crust Farthing set took control from Churchill and came to terms with Hitler, leaving him to continue his death camps in Europe, with peace in our time in exchange.

It's 1949 and Lucy is happily married to David Kahn, who was born in England and is a war hero from a wealthy family ... but he's also a Jew, very much a second class citizen in this alternate world England. Lucy's father warned her to anticipate 'stings and insults' while the marriage caused a major rift with her Lady Macbeth of a mother, which is why Lady Eversley's pressing invitation for the couple to join 'one of Mummy's ghastly political squeezes' at the family's country house, Farthing, in Hampshire, rather surprised Lucy. She's even more surprised when a fellow guest, Sir James Thirkie, is murdered. Leading the investigation is Inspector Carmichael, an astute policeman whose own secret life makes him more tolerant of the Kahns than most of his peers. He's ably assisted in his work by his friend and associate, Sergeant Royston.

Unfortunately police attention quickly turns to David, since a six-pointed yellow star - that Jews on the continent are required to wear - was pinned by a dagger to the deceased's chest. Carmichael isn't at all convinced of Kahn's guilt - the staging seems a little obvious - but is pushed by his superiors for a quick resolution. A shooting complicates the case, seemingly by a Russian agent, and conspiracy theories arise. What starts out as a police procedural in an English country home develops sinister overtones that steadily and inexorably take over the story. Lucy fears and dislikes her manipulative mother, with good reason. As a trap closes tightly around her husband, she must decide what to do, and applies all her resources to the problem. Carmichael also has a tough decision to make, and does as much as he dares to set things right.

Farthing is a beautifully constructed, very frightening story of what might have happened during and after World War II and what still could happen in other contexts, as specific incidents - in this case deliberately engineered - trigger a societal reaction to restrict civil liberties and undermine freedom. This novel deserves a wide readership, and will generate important discussion in literature classes and book clubs. Read it - but I warn you, what happens to David and Lucy and to this alternate England will linger in your mind for some time to come.

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