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Monday, November 12, 2007

Reading List: Farthing

Walton, Jo. Farthing. New York: Tor, 2006. ISBN 0-7653-5280-X.
This is an English country house murder mystery in the classic mould, but set in an alternative history timeline in which the European war of 1939 ended in the “Peace with Honour”, when Britain responded to Rudolf Hess's flight to Scotland in May 1941 with a diplomatic mission which ended the war, with Hitler ceding the French colonies in Africa to Britain in return for a free hand to turn east and attack the Soviet Union. In 1949, when the story takes place, the Reich and the Soviets are still at war, in a seemingly endless and bloody stalemate. The United States, never drawn into the war, remains at peace, adopting an isolationist stance under President Charles Lindbergh; continental Europe has been consolidated into the Greater Reich.

When the architect of the peace between Britain and the Reich is found murdered with a yellow star of David fixed to his chest with a dagger, deep currents: political, family, financial, racial, and sexual, converge to muddle the situation which a stolid although atypical Scotland Yard inspector must sort through under political pressure and a looming deadline.

The story is told in alternating chapters, the odd numbered being the first-person narrative of one of the people in the house at the time of the murder and the even numbered in the voice of an omniscient narrator following the inspector. We can place the story precisely in (alternative) time: on p. 185 the year is given as 1949, and on p. 182 we receive information which places the murder as on the night of 7–8 May of that year. I'm always impressed when an author makes the effort to get the days of the week right in an historical novel, and that's the case here. There is, however, a little bit of bad astronomy. On p. 160, as the inspector is calling it a day, we read, “It was dusk; the sky was purple and the air was cool. … Venus was just visible in the east.” Now, I'm impressed, because at dusk on that day Venus was visible near the horizon—that is admirable atmosphere and attention to detail! But Venus can never be visible in the East at dusk: it's an inner planet and never gets further than 48° from the Sun, so in the evening sky it's always in the West; on that night, near Winchester England, it would be near the west-northwest horizon, with Mercury higher in the sky.

The dénouement is surprising and chilling at the same time. The story illustrates how making peace with tyranny can lead to successive, seemingly well-justified, compromises which can inoculate the totalitarian contagion within even the freest and and most civil of societies.

Posted at November 12, 2007 23:39