Farthing is something of a tour de force. It’s a classic British-style murder mystery—acknowledges and as inspirations—but set in an alternate history, one that apparently diverged in the 1930s. It takes place in a different 1949, one where the Nazis control the European continent and are still at war with the Communists in the east. The United States, under President Charles Lindbergh, seems to have developed its own sort of fascism, and is engaged in trade negotiations with the Japanese Empire. And Britain, after arriving at a negotiated peace with the Nazis, remains proud of its traditional liberties and of its empire. But this is also a cautionary tale about the easy downward path from freedom to tyranny.
The story starts with the discovery of a corpse at a country house owned by a leading British politician and his wife. The dead man himself was a highly regarded British politician, the man who negotiated peace terms with Hess. Suspicion falls on one of the guests—David Kahn, the son-in-law of the host and hostess. A Scotland Yard inspector is sent to supervise the investigation, and finds the case’s complexities steadily increasing as he looks for more evidence. At the same time, his superiors are pushing for a straightforward accusation and a quick arrest.
The country house could be the setting for one of’s mysteries, or even one of ’s comedies. But if it’s a Wodehousean story, it’s one where all the characters’ intelligence has been turned up several notches. And there are darker issues beneath the surface: British anti-Semitism and the criminal penalties for homosexual acts that are still in force in this timeline, as they were in the real 1949. As a Jew married to a daughter of the British aristocracy, and as a bisexual, Kahn finds himself isolated.
Saying any more than that would give away too much of the plotline, which readers ought to discover for themselves. I’ll say, instead, that this is one of the most disturbing cautionary tales I’ve read in some time. And at the same time, it offers characters who do the right thing under terrible circumstances, and, better yet, do it for the right reasons, as when a minor character describes the political crisis that grows out of the murder as “a terrible attack upon liberty” and later says, “What you can’t pay back you pay forward.”
Reading Farthing isn’t likely to make you happy. A more likely reaction is pity and terror. Aristotle said tragedy was designed to evoke. But it’s a long time since I’ve read so powerful a political and cultural tragedy.
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