Did Kara read this book totally unaware that it’s the middle of a trilogy? Absolutely I did that. I picked this up for $5 from a used bookstore because it’s a Jo Walton novel I haven’t read, and I really like Jo Walton’s books. Even when I don’t love them, I like them, which is the case here. Honestly, you couldn’t tell from this book that there was one previous—obviously the first book would have filled in some of the backstory to how we got to now, and I would have met Inspector Carmichael sooner. But Walton is really good at making Ha’penny feel like a standalone novel.
It’s 1949, and the Second World War ended with a peace that left Hitler in power in Germany and fascism rising in Britain. A bomb went off in the home of an actor, Lauria Gilmore, killing her and another man. Were they terrorists, planning an attack? Or innocent victims? Inspector Carmichael of Scotland Yard is on the case, getting heat from above to get results soon, close it, and move on. Meanwhile, actor Viola Lark (former Larkin) is cast as Hamlet even as one of her estranged sisters reaches out to bring her into a bombing conspiracy. Viola must decide if she is capable of helping them blow up Hitler and British Prime Minister Normanby on the opening night of her play. But will cutting the head off the snake save Britain from its fall into fascism? Or, like the hydra, will an even worse head climb into the power vacuum that awaits?
This is the central question of Ha’penny. When is violent revolution effective? When is civil resistance effective? When is it sufficient to depose a despot, and when is wider education and persuasion necessary? This might seem like a lot for a book about the theatre to tackle—but that is Walton for you, always meditating on complex issues in the most interesting of environments. This might be stating the obvious, but even the choice of play for the backdrop of this drama supports the question: Hamlet is about the main character’s indecisiveness over how to deal with his knowledge that his uncle murdered his father for the throne.
Walton’s choice of a counterfactual 1940s in which Hitler has held onto power makes the stakes all the more interesting. There were, of course, actual plots to kill Hitler with a bomb at several points leading up to and during the Second World War. I don’t know enough history to understand if that would have toppled the Third Reich and stopped the war dead in its tracks, but it seems to me like Hitler being in control of a consolidated peacetime Germany is a far different situation. Similarly, the grip that fascism has on Britain is fledgling—which seems to be harder to dislodge, in a way. People like Viola shrug at the violations of civil liberties visited upon Jewish people and non-British people, because they seem minor. In a world before mass television, the rumours of what is happening concentration camps are just that—rumours. So it’s more difficult to observe the descent, and people like Lord Scott seem more like alarmists than patriots.
Then we have Carmichael, who feels over the barrel because his superiors know he’s gay. Without spoiling the ending, he basically gets promoted into a position he really doesn’t want. He’s forced to hope that he can use his newfound power to “do some good” or at least mitigate the damage being done in the name of the state. The road to Hell and all … I can only imagine this is exactly the kind of thinking that many collaborators used during Nazi occupations and similar situations, including today. Do we stick inside the system and try to change it from within? Or do we disappear, go underground, even if that means leaving behind our lives? Carmichael is in a hard place, and there are no easy answers.
In the end, this isn’t so much a mystery novel (because we already know whodunit) as it is a suspense novel (will they be successful in their bombing plot, and will it make a difference)? Again, without spoilers, I’d also assert that given the ending it’s a bit of a horror story. At least a cautionary tale. I’m tempted to read the previous and subsequent books, which will hopefully give me a fuller understanding of the journey that Carmichael is on. We shall see what my library and used bookstore turn up for me!