Review: Farthing (The Small Change Trilogy 1)

FarthingBy Jo Walton

Corsair Books, out now

May 1949, eight years after the Farthing Peace brought an end to war – while the European continent continues to suffer Nazi repression, life in England is pretty much as it was before the War. But a murder in a country house has major ramifications…

Jo Walton’s Small Change trilogy – first published between 2006 and 2008 by Tor – has finally come to the UK, courtesy of Corsair, and it’s well worth picking up, particularly in light of current events unfolding in the Ukraine. (I assumed the title came from the coinage after which the books are named – Farthing, Ha’penny, Half A Crown – rather than the fact there was a “small change” in history!)

Farthing is one of those novels which appears light and frothy to begin with but then starts to exert an insidious grip as the world in which it’s set becomes ever more clear. There are two strands – the first narrated by Lucy Kahn, one of the daughters of the house, who has upset everyone by marrying a Jew, David Kahn; the other told from the point of view of police inspector Carmichael, who is determined to get to the truth behind a murder, even if his discoveries are politically inconvenient.

As Carmichael notes, Lucy isn’t as vapid and brainless as she might first appear: Walton’s decision to tell the story in her voice means that we experience a lot of her slang and private vocabulary (Macedonian/Athenian/Bognor/Paris all take on new meanings) which is grating to begin with, but cleverly disguises some of the clear thinking beneath. Carmichael himself has some secrets which he needs to keep even from his loyal sergeant as they pursue the leads.

The world Walton has created is horribly credible: the use of real people in cameos – Michael Foot is the best – adds a verisimilitude to developments, and there are occasional shocking reminders of what is going on elsewhere as a result of the Farthing Peace.

In a very good way, this reminds me of Leslie Charteris’ novel Prelude for War (aka The Saint Plays with Fire), for which I recently provided an introduction for the reprint edition – Charteris was writing in 1938 and set up a similar series of dominoes (except he used a house fire rather than a stabbing as the instrument of murder) which when they fell could lead to the same sort of outcome that Walton predicts. Charteris had Simon Templar to foil the plot; in Walton’s less blood-and-thunder world, Inspector Carmichael has to face some home truths.

Verdict: A dark version of history that is well worth exploring. 8/10

Paul Simpson

Click here to buy Farthing (Small Change Trilogy 1) from Amazon.co.uk

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