The what-might-have-been genre


Mysteries and thrillers hinge on basic questions: whodunit, whydunit and the dreaded had-I-but-known. Then there’s what-might-have-been, which is the domain of thrillers that recount alternate histories. Instead of fashioning chaos out of order in a world with which we’re familiar (or, as in the case of historical fiction, one that predates us but did, in fact, exist), alternate histories engage in narrative hypotheses. What if the South had been victorious in the Civil War (the premise of alternate-history king Harry Turtledove’s latest forays into this subgenre)? What if a section of Alaska became the site of a Yiddish-speaking Jewish homeland (as in Michael Chabon’s genre-bending “The Yiddish Policemen’s Union”)? And, most popular of all, what if the Nazis had won World War II?

This particular scenario is attractive because it allows writers to take on a genuine fear that affected millions of people in the 1940s while remaining safe in the knowledge that it did not come to pass. The best of these books, such as Philip K. Dick’s “The Man in the High Castle” (1962), Len Deighton’s “SS-GB” (1978) and Robert Harris’ “Fatherland” (Mortalis: 352 pp., $13.95 paper) make implicit comparisons between the historical world that wasn’t and the contemporary world that is.

Embedding parallels between the past and present allows a writer to transcend time while attracting a steady readership (even if “SS-GB,” regrettably, remains out of print.) A dedicated, permanent, widespread reader base is what I wish for Jo Walton, a Welsh-born fantasy novelist now based in Montreal, and her still-in-progress “Small Change” trilogy. Though her scope is superficially narrow, focusing solely on the impact of Nazi rule on British society, what she uncovers below the surface is an astounding blend of snobbery, class division and outright menace that makes her concocted world easily as horrific as one in which the dangers are more overt.


“Farthing” (Tor: 326 pp., $6.99 paper) is the first book in Walton’s trilogy, and its opening pages, set in a 1949 that might have been, seem to set up a conventional locked-room mystery with roots in the works of Agatha Christie and Josephine Tey. The victim, though, was the lead negotiator of a fractious 1941 peace agreement between Britain and Nazi Germany, the locked room is located in the house where the treaty was brokered and the main suspect falls under suspicion because he is Jewish -- an attribute barely tolerated in increasingly anti-Semitic England. Little wonder that the murder has to do with bigger issues, but Walton’s ability to shift from jolly murder mystery to tense political intrigue is a testament to her subtle way with prose. There are no lengthy digressions into back story. And Farthing’s dual narrators, young newlywed Lucy Kahn and slightly older Scotland Yard detective Ian Carmichael, do their best to resist society’s tendency to chip away at their innate idealism even as their efforts prove increasingly fruitless.

“Farthing” ended on a necessarily dark note, and this tone carries forward in “Ha’Penny” (Tor: 320 pp., $25.95) as news trickles out about Lauria Gilmore, a leading actress killed in a bomb blast that’s suspected to have been terrorist in origin. The news further erodes what little enthusiasm Inspector Carmichael has for the government he’s supposed to serve and protect. “Had [his partner] and he been sent here because the powers that be knew they would acquiesce in a cover-up if necessary?” he wonders. “Bring it on, he thought bitterly. Covering up for bombs, bombing people, throwing children into gas chambers. He knew how he would act if put to the test.”

Viola Lark, the actress who is “Ha’Penny’s” second narrator, is far less certain. Her talent is for the stage, especially a female version of “Hamlet” intended to entertain “a very distinguished audience -- the Prime Minister and Herr Hitler” on opening night. But she is also one of the six-sister-strong Larkin clan, whose members range from the outspoken, actively communist Siddy to Pip, “married to Himmler and practically queen of the Czechs, from what they say,”

Viola may protest that her allegiance is less for her country than for the theater, but her family ties put her squarely in the middle of a burgeoning plot to kill the two leaders by bomb on “Hamlet’s” opening night. Not completely convinced of Siddy’s anti-Reich sentiments yet hardly in tune with Pip’s denial about the Nazis, Viola must make a forceful choice that will affect the outcome of a world that’s hardly free.

As before, Walton’s use of a common genre template -- this time the race-against-time thriller -- allows her to develop the eerily contemporary underpinnings of her alternate history. Viola may wonder at the difference between the prime minister’s so-called bloodless coup and the bloodier one that forces her to choose between sisters, but her declaration that “Nobody cares. . . politics is politics. . . Why is any of this something that I should be prepared to die for?” seems equally germane to our own darkly ambiguous times. Though “Ha’Penny” is primarily about British politics, a throwaway mention of Americans as “too frightened to elect old Joe Kennedy instead of Lindbergh with his talk of keeping down the Jews and the blacks” echoes the theme and trajectory of Philip Roth’s “The Plot Against America” in just a single phrase.

Walton’s trilogy will conclude next year with “Half a Crown,” and if the first two installments are any indication, this should be a haunting meditation on what happens to a society in the grip of fascism while firmly in denial of a steadily building truth. Like meticulously nested Matroyshka dolls, both “Farthing” and “Ha’Penny” reveal complex arguments layered in their elegantly structured narratives. In these novels, Walton gives us much to think about -- regarding her world and our own.