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Ignoring the Body in the Library: The World of Farthing

Farthing by Jo Walton

Farthing by Jo Walton

Written by Jo Walton

I’ve always liked cosy mysteries like those of Agatha Christie, Dorothy Sayers, and most especially Josephine Tey. You know the kind of book; there’s a ridiculously contrived murder in a country house and a detective and lots of suspects. You can settle down into their lives and try to guess who’s guilty while the servants bring tea and buttered crumpets. It’s easy to lose track of the fact that somebody really has been violently killed, an event that would in any normal circumstances be horrifying. The way they’re written is soothing, with lots of physical detail and lots of complicated relationships and motivations and somehow the violent death gets lost in the cosiness.

I realised one day that the cosy mysteries that weren’t written in the thirties seemed to be set in an imaginary version of the thirties that had just gone on, past the point in history where things began to change during and after World War II. And that set me thinking about the thirties going on, with country houses and people complaining about the servants and offstage appeasement and poverty, and just how horrible that would have been. Dorothy Sayers’ Gaudy Night takes place the same time as George Orwell’s The Road to Wigan Pier.

Farthing and its sequels (the Small Change series) take place in an extended version of the thirties. There is an abbreviated WWII and Britain and the Nazis agreed to call it a draw in May of 1941. In reality, Hitler kept offering Britain peace terms and couldn’t understand why Churchill didn’t take them. Any of the governments of the thirties would have. In the Small Change universe, when Hess flew to Britain with Hitler’s offer, Churchill had a slightly different cabinet, one that pushed him to negotiate. They made peace, with Hitler keeping everything up to the Channel. The US never came into the war. The thirties went on, and in 1949, a body is found during a country house weekend and a detective comes down from Scotland Yard to investigate.

I realised that I could use the language and conventions of the cosy mystery to talk about fascism. In the same way the cosy sidles up on death, I could sidle up on evil. Evil is so often an abstraction. People talk about the horrors of fascism; nobody talks about the appeal — and yet it did appeal. All those thousands of people in the torchlit marches in Nuremberg were there to have fun. Diana Mosley wrote, “Poor dear Hitler.” How could anyone write “Poor dear Hitler”? And how can you step away from knowing the monstrosity and the history to talk about how somebody could say that? Well, with tea and biscuits and a conservatory and a bit of a love story, the same way cosy mysteries approach the body in the library.

I did it in a different history, so that you can’t be sure of your ground. It’s very easy with history to feel safe, no matter what awful things you’re reading about, because you know they’re over, you know how things came out. In an alternate history you don’t know that. History isn’t inevitable, history is contingent. And history isn’t over. We are building history all the time, every moment, with every choice we make. All the choices we make add up to history. They are what history is. We are building history for the future.

I used to say that Farthing is a book about how good people do bad things. But now I prefer to say it’s about how all people do bad things — we’re compromised and imperfect and afraid for ourselves.

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