Saturday, March 13, 2010

Mark Mills creates a thriller in Malta during World War II

Mark Mills latest novel is called a “lush romantic thriller” on the jacket, and it is that and more. I am happy to recommend it.

The Information Officer

Mark Mills' The Information Officer (276 pages, Random House, $25) tells the story of Max Chadwick, a Brit stationed in Malta during WWII. Max is an Information Officer, which means that he publishes well-crafted deceptions in order to keep up the spirits of the local inhabitants. In the early years of the war, this small Mediterranean island was bombarded mercilessly by the Germans and Italians, and the poor Maltese came close to despair. The British, who inhabited the island as colonial rulers, understood the tactical importance of the island, and did their best to fight off the attacks and protect the locals.

Into this already tense situation—even when the bombing raids concentrated on the airport or the naval installation, stray bombs could hit neighborhood gathering places, hospitals, and private homes—someone is carrying out a series of grisly murders of young bar girls.

Max is dragged into this dreary affair when the head surgeon at the local hospital tells him about a body that has just been brought in. Freddie, the doctor, is concerned to keep the murder quiet because he feels the authorities are ignoring some similar cases that he reported earlier. Max understands the need for secrecy, and he takes on the role of private investigator, at least for a while.

Mills does a wonderful job of creating the world of wartime Malta, and he peoples the novel with a vast and interesting range of minor characters. There are local women, part Maltese and part British, who add knowledge of the local surroundings and clear erotic interest to the proceedings; there are also an assortment of displaced British and American soldiers and fortune hunters—sometimes one and the same—who complicate the story and give it richness and depth.

At times, the action becomes unnecessarily complicated. Max is riding his motorcycle back and forth across the island so many times, that it becomes almost confusing. But Mills maintains his clear sight of a dramatic ending, and there is nothing disappointing about that. In fact, he ties everything up rather elegantly in the end.

I like the novel quiet a lot, and I will surely go back and look for some of his earlier titles. Mills is a talented and erudite novelist. It’s rare these days to find a novelist who quotes Shakespeare, Alexander Pope, and Virgil, but Mills does, and he somehow does so without seeming to be showing off.

Mark Mills

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