"Farthing" Group Discussion
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Now, all that out of the way, just as with most good, cozy Brit Lit murder mysteries I enjoyed this book and just whizzed through it. Bummer of an ending. Oh, BTW, the way it ended doesn't qualify this as SF either, even if it wasn't the ending I wanted. As you can tell, I'm really hung up on how this ever got classified SF.
Anyway, to me that angle's unimportant.
So, I finished the book, and very sickening it was (meaning, successful, I suppose). The mystery wasn't much of a mystery, I thought, and some characters seemed to me rather "modern", but the political background was executed brilliantly, and in a way, THAT was the story.
I know only superficially about the influence of fascism in pre-WWII Britain (Mosley, the Mitfords, Lord Haw-Haw...), however, this sounded disconcertingly possible.
I liked the writing. Like Gene, I too was disappointed in my expectation to see the baddies punished, and punished STERNLY.
There were a few pages of the next book in my copy, but it doesn't seem the same characters recur? Are the sequels set in the same era, with the same premise?
I found Farthing deeply disturbing because of its timing. Ms. Walton wrote this in the awful political aftermath of 9/11/01, and the cessation of UK and US civil liberties protections. Her setting was designed to make readers think about the consequences of giving up anything for illusory security and what that giving-up costs those on the wrong side of it.
The second book, Ha'Penny, has Inspector Carmichael interacting with the Farthing Set only at the end and to extremely upsetting purpose, while gaining a personal triumph at the expense of an awful personal tragedy; Half a Crown is the end of the series, with Carmichael dealing fully and finally with the consequences of his personal choices and their effects on the society he has helped create. It's the only one of the three I would describe as possessing even a ray of hope.
Another Fascist Britain book I read and enjoyed was The Summer Isles by Ian R. MacLeod. I don't adore his books as a rule, but found this tale of a gay man navigating Fascist London and learning the fate of his long-lost WWI lover quite disturbingly moving.
I don't really think that this society in Great Britain could have come about. But I guess it is worth pondering.
I am not so sure.
Firstly remember that we only really see the aristocrats and their servants. We don't see the middle-class or the common man much at all. It is well known that there was a sizeable amount of sympathy for Nazism from some of the British aristocracy in the 1930s (wary of the Feinians and the growing power of the common man). If they could wrest power without it seeming like a coup (and the manipulation of a climate of fear seems the only way) then most of the services and middle classes would probably acquiesce. The book is far less about the threat from outside by from inside. The manipulation of the populace to give powers to those who would then repress the people.
In the real world, after WWII education, health and transport (among others) were opened up to the masses. The aristocracy had been on its last legs for a decade or more anyway. But British society was less class-ridden after WWII than it was before.
But I'm not convinced it was WWII which was chiefly responsible for this. Walton seems to be suggesting it is - she has a 1930s Gosford Park world existing in 1949. Perhaps she's only using the peace brought about by Hess as a bit of handwaving to give her the society she needs for her story. Or perhaps she really is suggesting we'd still have the nobs lording it over us if it hadn't been for pesky old Adolph...
I didn't notice this wasn't the case in "Farthing" either, although mostly by omission. Because the scene was one of the top strata of society, and while "society" as a whole may formally open to more democratic ways, these circles may not (in fact, we know that usually they don't, certainly not completely.)
Besides, it's only four years after the war...
But isn't "class" still a neuralgic point in Britain?
we'd still have the nobs lording it over us if it hadn't been for pesky old Adolph...
Well, that's a bit grotesque way of putting it, but clearly post-WWII things couldn't have gone on the same--maybe less because of Hitler, though, than because of the Soviets, and their, at the time, triumphant Revolution. Revolution had ever been a popular idea in Europe, and WWII brought it "home" in a disconcerting manner. Tony Judt has lots of interesting things to say on this in Postwar (touchstone probably messed up).
The police investigators were certainly aware of what back entrances they'd be coming through if a crime hadn't been committed
Yeah. And the lady of the manor disdaining sitting at the same table with policemen. Lots of people with servants observe such "niceties" to this day.
There's an explicit mention of the murdered Thirkie sponsoring a bill which would limit Higher Education to pupils from preparatory and boarding schools*. That's certainly the opposite of what really happened.
Besides, it's only four years after the war...
Farthing is set in 1949, seven years after Thirkie brought back "Peace with Honour" from Berlin. By that point in the real world, Britain had been flattened by the Luftwaffe, and had been beggared by 6 years of war and the US's subsequent demands for repayment.
There's a huge social gap between pre-WWII and post-WWII, and I'm not convinced that gap is as much a result of the war as Walton proposes in Farthing.
* So I'd have been all right...
It seems to me British culture was/is concerned with problems of "class" for the entire 20th century, so I don't know how "huge" a social gap there was between 1940 and 1949, say. (In "real" history.) You can change the laws overnight, but not the custom.
Lucy seems to me to feel slightly...odd...about her Farthing-set life, and not in harmony with its details even though she quite clearly gets the rules.
Lucy was one of the characters that seemed "modern" to me. Although, we learn close to the end of the book that she was raised by a right-thinking servant, not the monstrous mother.
Another thing about Lucy--at first, I was really worried I wouldn't be able to follow the story told in that dimwitted voice, but eventually I grew to like her, against odds. (And, thank god for the interspersed Carmichael chapters.) There was some unexpected humour and intelligence in that scatterbrained mess, but, whew, cutting it very close with the "I'm a silly little doll with large blue eyes" shtick...
Well, of relevance here is the Education Act 1944, which opened education to all classes. There's a clear suggestion in Farthing that this didn't occur.
Mmmmm, beauty. If not for beauty, we'd never mate.
I see, I see. Ah well, as I said, "Farthing" didn't strike me as implausible, but it's all speculative anyway.
Brains trumps beauty anyday.
I was thinking, naturally, about sex.
You know, it's a pity people aren't more like fish.
But I also wonder if I'd feel that way if I'd ever even made a stab at being "faithful" in the here's the ring and the chastity belt kind of marital set-up.
#26 We get these little outbreaks of totalitarianism all the time. I remember the fuss over the Criminal Justice Act back in the early 1990s. Also, non-Brits seem horrified over the number of CCTV cameras in the UK - 25% of the world's CCTV cameras are in the UK - but, to tell you the truth, none of us here are all that bothered by it. So there's a CCTV camera on the tram watching you. That means that if some chav decides goes postal, there's plenty of evidence to send him down. Thing is, we Brits can't keep anything going with any degree of rigour for anything more than short periods. We created an Empire by accident and let it go in a fit of absence. The same is true of everything else. We'll do it for a bit, things change, so we leave it in the middle of the road and move on...
Actually there are a few people who speak up against the proliferation of CCTV.
There are arguments that CCTV only displaces activity if at all (that pissed-up chav is not likely to change his behaviour). Many of the cameras just don't work well enough to secure any sort of result. I know someone who had their bike nicked in the street in an area supposedly covered by cameras. They were told that the operators could not get a clear picture of who stole the bike.
British bumbling* is a great buffer against authoritarianism. If Britain was as organised and efficient as some other countries then the authoritarian knee-jerks would be more worrying.
* which I consider one of the key traits of the country and a very endearing one at that.
(SF, Alternate History, Mystery, general fiction, cautionary fables, wherever).
Well, it is the first book of three in the same setting.
I wouldn't fuss the classification. Depending on what categories are available in a given place, it could go into Fiction, Literature, SF, Alternative history, Mystery...
Thank you, Ian - someone else besides myself found the obvious scapegoating to be annoying. Mr Kahn spends years as a Jew trying to fit in with a post-war England, and decided to premeditate a murder, mutilate a dead body, and jam a Jewish star on the corpse as his calling card, too? Right.
I just finished the book, and I felt the same. I spent much time musing over who dun it and didn't get far - not because I was on the wrong track, but because I thought 'gosh, to have it be /all/ of them seems a bit much, doesn't it?' Nearly every actual character in the story was either a detective, falsely accused, or implicit in the murder.
While I could buy the coverup, I wish she'd gone to a bit more effort to make it plausible. Perhaps part of the point was that the framing need not be that well-done, so eager was society to blame the Jews and idolize the Farthings - if so, I would have liked to have seen that a bit more. More importantly, I would have liked to have seen more impact and fear when it came to the threats against Carmichael.
I liked the setting well enough - there were certainly parts that made one stop and think - but as others have mentioned, I also thought that it was a bit thin. I would have liked to have had an exploration as to what made /these/ Britons eager to celebrate a peace with Hitler and accept the clear and public murder of Jews on the Continent, and what made them likewise so willing to sheep their way along behind their new Prime Minister. Perhaps this comes in later books but... Frankly, the story wasn't interesting enough to me for me to bother, which is a problem!
I'll admit, I mostly finished this book so that I could get on to the next things in my tbr list. The story and characters just didn't compel me much, alas.
(And I will second or third or fifth the notion that pure alternate history with no other device doesn't really fit into Sci Fi).
The murder-mystery itself was little better. Carmichael's working out of each clue was slow, annoying and often plainly wrong. Given the two narratives, the reader had a little more information, but despite that it was obvious Kahn wasn't guilty. Okay, so he was a deliberate scapegoat - but it should have been obvious to the characters that he was. They shouldn't have entertained his guilt seriously for a moment. Yet they did. For much of the novel.
Neither was I convinced by the modus operandi for Thirkie's death. It made no sense whatsoever. And the Dowager Lady Thirkie's explanation didn't help. The same is true of the "joke" played by Brown with his .22. What was that meant to achieve? I'm tempted to say it was over-egging the cake, but the whole thing never resembled a cake in the first place. Oh, and then the murder of Timms... There's a story in there - the establishment conspiracy and all that. But Walton skates over it, preferring her cozy County Set murder-mystery. But perhaps that's covered in the other two books...
OTOH, the book's prose was good, as was the characterisation. But overall there wasn't enough there to encourage me to read the other two books in the trilogy.
I agree with Gene. The point wasn't to frame Kahn "efficiently" at all--the main thing was simply to tag him as "It", start the hunt and set the dogs loose. And, this is actually how it happened in Germany A LOT.
I agree. I think that the flimsiness of the cover-up and frame could have been a really effective way of bringing the alternate history home and saying something about these Britons in this Britain, but it wasn't really developed at all.
None of the characters seem to entertain the notion that maybe they didn't feel the need to do things properly because half-assed was enough for their purposes, or to consider what this meant about Britain and its society. We got /some/ pondering on how Kahn wouldn't get off unless the real killer was found - but not until the last few pages does it even come into play that it might not /matter/ if the real killer was found, that that might not be the /point/.
It could have been done. But I don't think it was.
"the book's prose was good, as was the characterisation"
Won't argue with you there, but if the prose and characters are set around a flimsy premise and background, why would I even bother visiting?
I saw the set-up as pointing out the power of the elite in manipulating information to the masses which is most relevant to the post 9/11 years. I'm happy to see government and the legal system be transparent and accountable.
Thanks for bringing me an interesting choice of reading!
I don't think there's anything flimsy about the premise, and the background (which, actually, is the embodiment of "the premise") is great. I think one can get misled if one thinks of this as foremost a "mystery"--it's a mystery only in the sense that there's a murder, and we don't know the killer, although we realise (as readers) quickly enough that there's in fact a conspiracy of killers going on. At least, I assumed from the scene when Lucy runs into her mother at that unusual hour, that the mother was the killer (which in a sense she was).
So, yeah, there come the cops, investigating etc. but all the while what we are following--the main thing, to which the murder is just a spark--is the slow unveiling of a Nazi program for Britain, for which implementation one starts--as almost every time in "real" history--with the scapegoating of the Jews.
I don't remember exactly, but I think Carmichael basically "decided" Kahn was innocent as soon as he met him. In fact, I thought that was unrealistically quick of him (but as I said, he struck me as a tad too "modern" a character, in the sense that he was so, so... PC). Royston didn't because Royston is an antisemite--good cop, good friend and father--primed to fall in and march when the homeland goes totalitarian. That was the point, I thought, of the final scene in the book, when Carmichael greets Royston's kid in front of Roystpn's home, but then doesn't enter Royston's house, as he would previously--that relationship has been redefined.