Ha’penny by Jo Walton

I found Jo Walton‘s Ha’penny at the library and picked it up without realizing it was the sequel to an earlier book, Farthing. The first thing to get out of the way then, is that this book stands up excellently for itself; I don’t feel I lost much by missing the previous one.

Ha’penny is a police thriller (not a mystery, since we see both sides of the story at all times) set in an alternate late 1940’s where World War 2 in Europe ended not with the defeat of Nazi Germany but with a chummy truce between Hitler-dominated Europe and nationalist governments in Britain and the U.S.A. The fate of Asia and the Pacific is not mentioned or else skipped over lightly. This results in an increasingly security-mad and controlling government in the U.K., which is the setting for the story.

The story is engaged when a Scotland Yard inspector stumbles onto a plot to kill the British PM and Hitler together during a theater performance. The p.o.v. alternates chapter-by-chapter between Inspector Carmichael, on the trail of the plot, and Viola Larkin, a society girl turned working actress who is drawn in to the plot by her communist sister.

The characters drive the story here, with numerous secondary characters illustrating the kind of types that make the nationalist police state possible, such as the xenophobic lower-middle-class assistant inspector working with Carmichael; and Viola’s five sisters, each a fanatic for a different faction of the “Peace with Honor” society.

Viola, the apolitical hard-working actress, more concerned with the fate of the theater in the face of the film industry, and covertly homosexual Carmichael, fearing that exposure will end his career, are both trapped in their roles. Both will suffer for their actions, but nonetheless they go ahead out of loyalty, in one case to family, and in the other to justice. Thus, for the characters, the story is a tragedy, though the question of whether history will be changed is open until the end. This tragic inevitability seems particularly appropriate connected to the unsettling reflection between the rising police state of the story and events in the modern western world (In case you thought the election of Barack Obama ended these trends, remember that just this week it became illegal to photograph policemen in the U.K.)

To summarize, Ha’penny is clearly written, engaging, dramatic, and…recommended.

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