Jo Walton’s 2006 novel, now reissued in paperback, is set in a counter-historical Britain of the late 1940s. It is both a traditional “stately home” murder mystery, with a cast of lords and ladies straight out of Downton Abbey, and a meditation on the ease with which a democratic country can slide imperceptibly into Fascism. One is reminded of similar efforts by other authors: Sinclair Lewis’s It Can’t Happen Here imagined it through the lens of 1930s small town New England; Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America saw it through the eyes of a lower middle-class Jewish family in New Jersey. Walton tells it through the voice of Lucy Kahn (nee Eversely). Lucy is a rich, aristocratic young woman who appears to be mainly preoccupied with her hair, her clothes, and the preparation of her tea, but she has, unaccountably, defied her family by marrying a Jew (albeit a rich and handsome one).
The Britain that Walton conjures has signed a shameful peace with Hitler, ceding him the whole European continent; it is a Britain of undisguised anti-Semitism and anti-homosexuality; a Britain where Bolsheviks and anarchists are imagined to be lurking behind every bush. Lucy’s powerful, right-wing parents and their allies—the ‘Farthing set’—are largely responsible for this state of affairs. When one of these friends, Lord Thirkie, is found murdered in his bed, with a Jewish star pinned to his chest by a dagger, suspicion immediately falls upon Lucy’s husband, David. The only one not convinced of David’s guilt is Scotland Yard Inspector Carmichael. But Carmichael, it turns out, has secrets and vulnerabilities of his own.
The mystery is neatly plotted and the social commentary trenchant. Walton has written two sequels, which I have not had an opportunity to read but am looking forward to. Highly recommended.