This is a very smart, quirky novel spanning two time periods, from the recent past and flipping back to tell a story from the final days of the First World War. Godfrey Farthing is a captain of a small group of men who stumble upon an abandoned farmhouse with cabbages stored in the larder, chickens in the yard. As November 1918 dawns, rumour has it that an armistice will soon be signed – all Godfrey has to do is keep his men safe until then. Godfrey grieves all the young boys who have died when he sent them over the top, especially young Beach – surely there can’t be any point in more fighting.
If only his raw, straight out of training second-in-command, Lieutenant Svenson, wasn’t so eager to get some action before it’s too late. He’s two things Godfrey wished he wasn’t: a keen gambler and a man who loves his Webley revolver. The men, sequestered in the barn, pass the time with trivial games of chance, betting with odd trifles: a spool of thread, a sixpence, a wishbone, a piece of ribbon. Against Godfrey’s orders, Svenson insists on joining the men, but his manner is teasing, creating edginess and discord. When a young soldier (they are mostly still in their teens) arrives with the orders Godfrey dreads, personality clashes and secrecy threaten to destabilise Godfrey’s plans with tragic results.
Woven in with this story is that of Godfrey’s grandson, Solomon Farthing, who, in Edinburgh decades later, is trying to work his way out of a run of bad luck. He owes a local criminal boss a load of money he doesn’t have, and to make matters worse he’s been caught breaking into a house for an oddly innocent reason. A police officer who owes Solomon a favour gets him off, but there’s a catch. He must track down the family of one recently departed elderly gent, Thomas Methven who has no obvious next of kin. Thomas had 50,000 pounds in used notes sewn into his burial suit, a tidy sum with the kind of commission that might see Solomon through his tight patch.
Solomon is an heir hunter, and with four days to come up with an answer, the story takes him on a roller-coaster through the past, connecting dots and in particular the odd objects left behind, some of which have their origins in his grandfather’s pawn shop – another trip down memory lane. It’s a problematic case in many ways, and Solomon will have to face down rival heir hunters and his own demons, charging about the country-side in his aunt’s borrowed mini, acquiring a dog and the help of a miscreant boy along the way.
Solomon’s character reminds me a bit of someone from a Restoration comedy – he is such an unlikely hero. But somehow he makes connections that others don’t and it all harks back to those days just before the Armistice, on an abandoned farm in France. The fragments come together that explain the fifty thousand pounds, but also the story of Solomon himself – his parentage, his life with his grandfather at the Edinburgh pawn shop, his love and loss. The war story that is the basis of all that follows is a tense counterpoint to the more madcap story of Solomon’s search, because we all know that many soldiers died in those final days of the war and there are sure to be losses. But who?
The Inheritance of Solomon Farthing takes some interesting turns and produces an unexpected ending and resolution. It is such an original story with a cast of memorable and odd-ball characters – that Restoration comedy thing again, maybe. The writing is crisp with a smartly sardonic undertone that makes it a pleasure to read. Overall it might read like two distinctly different stories woven into one and not everyone will agree that this works successfully. However, I found that the Solomon story made for pleasantly light relief from the war story, with its sense of impending tragedy. I enjoyed the book a lot and will definitely read more by Mary Paulson-Ellis. A four out of five read from me.