Mass Market Paperback: 336 pages
Publisher: Tor Books; Reprint edition (1 Jul 2008)
Category(ies): Alternate History/Thriller
This is the middle book in a sequence that the author names either Still Life with Fascists or Small Change. It's set in an alternate world wherein the Hess peace mission succeeded, and Britain and Germany ceased fighting each other in 1941. It's now 1949, some time after the events of Farthing, and Britain has become a very intolerant place. On the other hand, most people who aren't Jews, or Communists, or Gypsies or whatever, have settled down to making a living under the regime. It's after still all a parliamentary democracy, even if the hold of Prime Minister Normanby looks pretty secure, especially after what happened at the house at Farthing.
In the midst of this, we meet Viola Larkin, actress. She's one of six remarkable sisters, very much in the mould of the Mitford sisters, and while one sister, Cressida (or Siddy) is a communist sympathiser in Moscow, another (Pip) has the opposite political sympathies (or are they the same - Hitler and Stalin were both authoritarian, both leaders of strongman regimes) and is now Frau Himmler. Viola, though, is fairly apolitical, suspended between those two political poles.
Then a fellow actress gets blown up by a terrorist bomb. After that, Viola gets sucked into a plot to blow up Hitler when he is due to attend the theatre in which Viola will be playing Hamlet.
Meanwhile, Inspector Carmichael of Scotland Yard is trying to work out how, why, the first bomb occurred. There's obviously a plot of some form going on, but did it die when the bomb went off? As Carmichael follows the clues, he slowly discovers the truth. Is he going to find the answers in time? In that sense, this is a race-against-time thriller.
I find this to be an interesting trio of books. All three have the same balanced pair of viewpoints: a first person female one, and then the third person male one of Carmichael (the common character in all three). Carmichael is a man driven by honour, but controlled by the unspoken guilt of his homosexuality. His is an invidious situation, dreaming of escaping with his valet and lover Jack to New Zealand, but unable to go. He's an intelligent man trying to do the right thing, but not always knowing what the right thing is.
And on the other side, in this volume we have Viola, an innocent pulled into the world of terrorism. This is a fascinating depiction of how becoming a terrorist can seem the right thing, not because of an overwhelming moral sense, but because of obligations and a sense of inevitability. We also see how a conspiracy can be undone by cowardice, and saved by heroics.
Walton manages something quite difficult in this novel: she makes us sympathetic with both sides of a conflict. The conspirators are trying to destroy, Carmichael is trying to save. All are trying to follow the dictates of their consciences, but those consciences are leading them down different paths. All in all, strongly recommended.