I have a headache. It's not your normal, garden-variety headache, though. It's one of those you get when your head has been bludgeoned with a message until you want to cry out in submission. That's what I felt upon finishing Farthing by Jo Walton, a political tract masquerading as an alternate history whodunit. I greatly enjoyed Walton's first four books and eagerly opened this one with the enthusiasm I hold for most of my favorite authors. My bubble was torn a little by Ursula Le Guin's blurb on the front cover: "Of course, her brilliant story of a democracy selling itself out to fascism sixty years ago is just a mystery; just a thriller, just a fantasy - of course we know nothing like that could happen now. Don't we?" As the book went on, however, I thought Le Guin may have been overstating things, because it didn't seem that bad. Little did I know how forceful it would become. I finished it a couple of days ago, and my ears are still ringing.
In an alternate 1949, Britain has made peace with Nazi Germany following Dunkirk, allowing Hitler to turn on the Soviet Union. Sir James Thirkie, hailed as the man who brought about the peace and a member of what's called the "Farthing Set" of high society politicians, is murdered during a weekend at the Eversley estate. Lucy Kahn, the lesser daughter of the Eversleys after marrying a Jew named David, was quite surprised when she and her husband were invited down for the weekend, but David saw it as a possible olive branch from her disapproving parents. Little did they know the web of intrigue they would find themselves involved in. Inspector Carmichael of Scotland Yard is assigned to investigate the murder, but somebody may not like what he finds out. Secrets are deep in the Farthing Set, and murder can sometimes be political. Or could it have been jealousy? Whatever Carmichael finds, it may not matter, and the lives of the Kahns may never be the same.
One admirable aspect of Walton's previous books has been her characterization skills, but in Farthing, she really gives the reader nothing to hold on to. The story is told in alternating chapters - third-person for Carmichael's vantage point, and first-person for Lucy's. Walton does a creditable job with Carmichael for the most part, but Lucy sounds like an upper-class twit, surprising considering how much she rebels against class status. She married David out of love despite his being Jewish and despite her grooming for an arranged marriage. She treats the servants like people and demonstrates intelligence when things start to go bad, but Walton writes her with a grating tone. I was usually sorry to leave Carmichael and go back to Lucy.
We learn much about David's background and his love for England, his insistence that the prejudice and horror Jews faced on the Continent could never happen in England, and his socialist tendencies. But one never really gets a feel for who he is as a person. The rest of the characters get short shrift, damaging the message Walton is evidently trying to impart as the "evil" comes from a bunch of two-dimensional beings masquerading as characters. We see them through Lucy's eyes and through Carmichael's interviews, and that's it. Walton's prose is otherwise quite good as she captures many different aspects of England and vividly recreating the countryside and the time period. But her characterization? Eh.
The mystery is just a springboard for more contemporary commentary, and, as I mentioned at the beginning, it's extremely heavy-handed. Walton has thrown in everything except skin color. David is Jewish as are a few other characters, and Jews aren't looked upon kindly in Britain. There are no camps or anything, at least not yet, but who knows what will happen once the events of the book are finished? Various characters make derogatory statements about Jews, and Lucy's whole situation is brought about by her marrying one. But both the main male protagonists are gay as well (or at least bisexual). Double the persecution for your money! Yes, there is gay-bashing as well, secrets that will stifle some characters from doing the right thing to keep their orientation from getting out. Even if including gay persecution with the rest in Farthing wasn't laying it on a bit thick, making both characters have this dilemma goes too far dramatically. There is subtle commentary and there are sledgehammers; Walton unfortunately chooses the latter as her tool of choice.
What intensifies this effect is that the book is very slow-moving. As events occur, Carmichael investigates, and Lucy tries to deal with the social consequences of the weekend murder, there are only hints of all this. Yes, Jew-baiting is there, but that's to be expected in any World War II-era book, and it can be seen as "normal" in this type of story. But it's only as the investigation slowly unfolds that the real point of the book begins to hit home. Getting a concentrated dose of the "message" is probably what makes it so unpalatable, though if it were this heavy throughout the entire book, I probably would have thrown it down in disgust before finishing it.
Who killed James Thirkie? Once you know the intended message of the book, it's quite obvious what happened, even if you're not sure exactly who is involved. One of the people, I'm still not sure if he/she was involved, even though Carmichael himself asks the question about the character at the end of the book. It's as if it doesn't matter anymore, and I would definitely have to agree. The murder takes a backseat to everything else. Even as Carmichael continues to investigate, there's a thematic reason for that as well; it surely isn't to actually catch the killer. Walton ends the book in a predictably downbeat way, considering the book’s theme. I guess I can be thankful that at least there doesn't appear to be any one-to-one character-to-real-life-person relationship anywhere. Thank heaven for small favors.
One thing I've found about political tracts is that, if you agree with the message, they are much easier to read. Knowing that, you can determine whether or not you may agree with my opinion of the book. However, the almost total lack of good characterization and the blunt instrument used may dissuade you even if you do agree with her. Farthing is definitely Walton's weakest book by a long shot. I hope the next one rebounds.