I didn’t love Jo Walton’s Farthing: in my brief review at GoodReads I admired the ingenuity of the premise and the “nice economy” of Walton’s development of her alternative history, but I thought the mystery itself wasn’t very interesting, and that it lined up too neatly with the predictions you would readily make about a crime story set in a Britain that has made peace with Hitler. But I know a lot of people who are big fans of Walton’s work, and “not loving” is not at all the same as “not liking at all,” so I thought I’d have a go at Ha’Penny, the second in the “Small Change” series.
And, again, I find myself a bit let down. It too is neatly executed, but again it felt obvious — not so much in the details of the plot, but in the larger story it’s telling us about the creeping moral paralysis of appeasement and the evils of tyranny. It is certainly possible in theory to introduce moral complexity into a novel about a plan to blow up Hitler, but I didn’t find any here, except, I guess, for the structural irony Inspector Carmichael recognizes at the end — that by doing his job as an officer of the law, he has preserved the very devil’s bargain under which so many (himself included) are suffering. But that’s not particularly subtle, and neither are the lessons our narrator Viola gets from the man fondly coercing her into violent resistance. “I don’t know if you’ll understand,” he says, with condescension that, unhappily, Viola deserves,
but there’s a thing it’s hard to give a name. It’s what we fought for in Ireland when you wouldn’t give it to us, and it’s what’s been lost on the Continent — I could call it freedom, or self-determination, but that’s too abstract. It’s the idea that one man’s as good as the next, before the law, whoever he is. It’s the idea behind the French Revolution, but it’s lost now in France, where old Petain licks Hitler’s boots. It’s the idea that built America, but they’re too frightened over there now even to elect old Joe Kennedy instead of Lindbergh with his talk of keeping down the Jews and the blacks.
“This isn’t going in, is it, love?” he asks Viola, who replies, “I don’t know . . . I do care about individual liberty. . . . But I don’t think liberty is something you get by blowing people up.” This is all hardly breathtaking, either for the sophistication of the dialogue itself or for the depth of the moral and political insights on either side — and that’s how I felt about the book as a whole too. Tyranny bad, liberty good, appeasement corrupting: we get it!
To be fair, I think some of this simple-mindedness comes from Viola, who is another of the ingenue narrators Walton alternates with her third-person account of Carmichael’s investigation. Carmichael himself is a sympathetically rendered character whose personal situation nicely encapsulates the insidiously encroaching pressures of dictatorship. As Ha’Penny ends, for instance, he has resigned himself to running an English equivalent of the Gestapo — to be called, with nice historical resonance, “The Watch” — partly because he has little choice and partly because he hopes he might have “the chance to do some good — to turn judicious blind eyes, and to make it better than it might have been.” It’s obviously a deal with the devil (did I mention that the bad guys in these novels are Nazis, or near enough?) and the road to hell is paved with good intentions … and the temptation to lapse into cliches when explaining what’s up is symptomatic of the problem I have with these novels.
It’s not that Walton is wrong about tyranny or Nazism or appeasement, or that her vision of this alternative future isn’t both plausible and a kind of cautionary tale for our present — but she hardly needed to create an alternative history to demonstrate any of her points, and the scenarios she comes up with are much less interesting than so many stories of actual people who cooperated with the Nazis in different ways and for various good purposes, stories that swamp us with the kind of moral complexity that I think these two books have notably lacked.