Author: Jo Walton
Rating: 4.5 Stars
Review By: Shana
An outstanding mix of British mystery, historical novel, and alternate history. Walton grabbed my attention right away. The book was exceptionally easy to slip into due to the familiarity of its initial premise (upper crust country weekend, social climbing and social tensions, and a crime in the offing). But in those first chapters you are introduced to the twist, slight at first, that in 1941 Britain entered a peace accord with Nazi Germany, the United States never entered the war, and Germany engulfed the European continent.
The book’s events take place in 1949, with Britain eight years into the peace with Germany, and Germany eight years into a protracted war with Bolshevik Russia. This combination of familiar mystery with the permutation of a world where WWII never occurred makes for a gripping backdrop (and where the familiar is coupled with the slowly reveal of how different this alternate history Britain is).
Walton uses two point of view characters, Lucy Kahn (the daughter of aristocracy who bucked entrenched British antisemitism to marry her Jewish husband) and Inspector Carmichael (of Scotland Yard, accomplished and educated, with one or two secrets of his own). The scene is the country estate of Lucy's parents, Farthing, and a weekend where the movers and shakers of the Farthing Set are to gather in advance of an important vote the coming week reorganizing the British government. The Farthing Set were largely responsible for the 1941 peace and there is some question about how much power they may be able to consolidate in the upcoming vote.
Then, as things so often do in British mysteries, a body is found, the murder appears to be political, and Lucy's husband looks like he is being framed. What follows are alternating chapters from Lucy's point of view with that of Carmichael's and the investigation. What makes this so effective is that where the book feels weighted heavily toward the British mystery side in the beginning, as the chapters roll by our view of this alternate history expands and acts as an impetus to deep thought about what it would mean if Britain had not stood against Hitler. Whether the insular nature of British culture and its much underscored distaste for the non-English would have worsened if not for the protracted resistance to Hitler. Whether both Britain and the United States would have quite so firmly self-identified as anti-fascist and pro-democratic, as liberty-loving and free, or as interested in at least putting up a facade of equality if they had not stood toe-to-toe against Nazi Germany and, facing a diabolical and perverse enemy, sought to embrace positive characteristics that would act as counterbalances to the characteristics of the enemy. Perhaps most effective is Walton's ability to, in the guise of a mystery and political intrigue, show how a country's denizens can believe "it can't happen here" and all the while slip slowly into totalitarian government.
In the end, the reader finds out the whodunit for the crime. But the climax is broader than that, and far more disturbing in its plausibility. There are changes in fortune, and characters who show remarkable insight and others who cannot see what is plain to the reader (though the reader has the benefit of historical hindsight). This book left me thinking for days after I finished it, managing to be both entertaining and thought-provokingly unsettling, all without being heavy-handed. A book for mystery fans and those who love historical fiction. But also for those who are willing to look a society’s complacency in the fact and admit that when someone says “it couldn't happen here,” to respond “it could happen anywhere.”