I can't begin to tell you how much I love this book. But I will try. On the surface, this is a murder mystery, in the style of a classic of the golden age of british detective stories. Think, Josephine Tey, Margery Allingham, Dorothy Sayers, Agatha Christie. Its got all the elements, the movers and shakers gathered for a country weekend at someone's ducal seat, the loyal servants, the daughter of the house whose scatty mannerisms conceal a sharp mind, the suspect son in law who isn't quite "one of us." There's the clever police detective who isn't a member of the club either but who is well read and thoughtful for all of that, and his slightly bumbling but full of commonsense sidekick, the higher ups at Scotland Yard under pressure from the Home Secretary. Oh yeah, we know this place and the conventions thereof.
Except we don't. Because this isn't our England of the 1940's. Walton gradually opens our eyes to the fact that this is an England in which Hitler was not defeated, this is an England that ended the Battle of Britain by reaching an accommodation with the Third Reich, and this is an England that is slowly, reluctantly, but none the less it seems inevitably, following Continental Europe into fascism. In the process, at least for me, she pulls of the neat trick of making me see something I've known for a very long time with new eyes.
Because I thoroughly enjoy those golden age detective stories. I have great fondness for them despite the very obvious evidences that they were written in a time and place where classism and racism and anti semitism and other forms of bigotry were less challenged and closer to acceptable than they are now. I've had disputes with GR friends about this, when they can't get past it and I can.
What this book helped me to understand, beautifully, subtly without banging me over the head with it it - is that I forgive that stuff because I know what happened next
. I know that England came to its "two roads that met in a wood" and took the other path. But of course OF COURSE, nobody in the 1940's knew that was going to happen. At the time that those books I enjoy so much were written those questions were not decided, not by a long shot. During the war and even after it, there were many opportunities, manyt roads not taken that could have lead to a much darker place.
The alternate history Walton puts before us is not in the least unlikely, in fact there's a certain terrifying "for want of a horseshoe nail," quality to just how very plausible it is. And so this alternate history pulls off the wonderful trick of making me remember the real
history of that time and place without the comfortable insulating qualities of hindsight. It makes me connect emotionally to something I knew only intellectually, how desperate and how close fought the ideological war was in those decades, and how much courage against all odds was needed by those who prevented this imagined future from being the one we inherited.
Moreover she does this, she evokes these large matters and sets them before us, while staying entirely within the tradition of the form she has chosen, that of the country house mystery. She doesn't give us the sweep of troops across Europe and the skies filled with fighter planes. Instead, like Josephine Tey, she shows us great moral battles being fought at the dining table, or on a walk in the home wood. In the betrayals between parents and children, in contempt arising between husbands and wives, in the failures of courage or the temptations of ambition that are first and most clearly seen in the private interactions of people who know one another well.
So even though she uses the traditions of the golden age detective story to tell quite a different tale, she does so with a respect for the form. She understands that at their best those novels were capable of a kind of subtle insight that could show you great matters in small and she uses the form to do precisely what it does best. Oh how I love this book.