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FARTHING. HA’PENNY. HALF A CROWN. By Jo Walton. Corsair. 316pp. $19.99 each.
The Small Change trilogy, from Welsh Canadian author and Hugo award winner Jo Walton, is now released for the first time in Australia. Walton’s alternate history predicates a Britain which made peace with Germany in 1941 after the Rudolf Hess mission.
Walton’s books, published between 2006 and 2008, predate C.J. Samson’s darker and more complex 2012 novel Dominion, which has a similar Nazi-dominated Britain. Walton says, “I wrote these books during a dark time politically, when the US and the UK were invading Iraq without a Security Council resolution on a trumped up casus belli.”
Each of the three novels features the same main character, Inspector Peter Carmichael, whose voice alternates with a different first-person female narrator in each book. Farthing, set in 1949, is deliberately modelled on the country house murder mysteries of Agatha Christie and Michael Innes. Sir James Thirkie, about to replace Anthony Eden as Prime Minister, is murdered, with a yellow star of David pinned to his chest, during a Farthing country house weekend.
Lucy Farthing is married to a Jewish banker who immediately becomes the scapegoat for the murder. Carmichael knows the identity of the real murderer, but has to manoeuvre the realpolitik as Farthing-Set member Mark Normanby becomes Prime Minister.
Ha’penny, set two weeks later, is more a political thriller than a murder mystery. Walton says its alternate title was The Hamlet Bomb as a Mitford sister clone, actress Viola Lark, becomes mixed up in a plot to kill both Normanby and Adolf Hitler. Walton says, “The idea of a theatrical Mitford sister and a plot to blow up Hitler was irresistible”.
A major problem with Walton’s female main characters is their lack of depth, and this is even more evident in Half a Crown, set in 1960. The female voice is teenager Elvira, Carmichael’s niece ,who is more interested in fashion and society than the deportation of Jews, the “British Power” streetfighters, and Nazi politics.
Carmichael is now running the Watch, the equivalent of the Gestapo in Britain, despite his secret liberal leanings. A global meeting is scheduled in London, where Germany and Japan will divide the world. A plot to overthrow the “soft” government of Normanby, and place the exiled Duke of Windsor on the throne over Queen Elizabeth, sees Elvira as the key to unlocking the conspiracy and a deus ex regina conclusion.
Half a Crown is the weakest of the three novels, as the British passivity for 11 years in the face of increasing fascist actions is never explained and thus seems unlikely to be immediately energised by the Queen’s intervention. Walton’s alternate title for the trilogy, Still Life with Fascists, perhaps best reflects Walton’s populace frozen in time from 1949 to 1960.
The Small Change trilogy takes its place as a readable and entertaining contribution to the alternate history World War II genre, but its lack of contextual depth and its weak female characterisation means that is never reaches the heights of Len Deighton’s SS-GB, Samson’s Dominion and Iain Macleod’s The Summer Isles.
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