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The "Information Officer" of Mark Mills's novel is Max Chadwick, a British officer stationed on the island of Malta during the Second World War. His job is to decide what news can be passed on to the islanders and the troops based there and, of course, what must remain secret. The situation in Malta is grim; the island is under heavy bombardment by German and Italian planes and it is proving very difficult to bring reinforcements to the island. The weight on Max's shoulders grows heavier when his friend Freddie, an army medic, tells him that he believes there is a serial killer murdering young Maltese women and that he suspects that the culprit is a British submariner. He tells Max that he had already brought this to the attention of his commanding officers but they hadn't acted on it. When the body of the latest victim is found she is clutching what appears to be a scrap of cloth from a submariner's uniform. With the locals already demoralised by the apparent ineffectiveness of the British forces, Max is afraid of the backlash that might ensue if it was made known that a British serviceman was killing Maltese women and he decides to investigate the matter himself.
The book jacket blurb for "The Information Officer" would suggest you shelved this under crime fiction but this is not only misleading but likely to disappoint many readers. The basic premise - that a serviceman is killing local women and must be stopped - makes for a good story but it gets lost in too many other things. I got the impression that the author either didn't know what he wanted to the book to be or that perhaps he forgot he was writing a whodunit and allowed his other ideas to take over.
There are either too many characters or those characters aren't developed enough, I haven't decided quite which. I suspect it's the latter because those characters whose background the reader does learn about seem over-developed in contrast. I had to keep flicking back to remind myself who people were and I really couldn't see why some characters were there at all. The perpetrator gets a voice in the novel but not in separate chapters, just a few paragraphs at the end of a few of the chapters. At first I didn't realise whose voice this was, I thought it was Max and I couldn't work out why he was saying something quite opposite to what Max had already said. The shift from Max to the perpetrator could have been done in a way that made it easier to see the change.
At 416 pages it's not exactly a long book but it's certainly longer than it needs to be. There were plenty of lengthy well written and tensely dramatic descriptions of the bombing raids, threatening formations of enemy aircraft and the exciting shooting down of an aircraft by an elderly islander which would have been well-placed in another novel but wasn't this one meant to be a murder mystery? Just half of these scenes would have really placed the story firmly in besieged Malta and allowed more time for the murder investigation.
One disappointing aspect was the way the story focused almost entirely on the British officers and their wives stationed on the island. Malta was one of the most heavily bombed places during the war and although the ordeal is referred to a great many times during the course of the novel you do rather get the impression that life for the British was an endless succession of cocktail parties. In comparison the lives of Maltese people is barely touched on except for one scene that takes place in a cave where bombed out families seek safety during air raids.
Armchair sleuths need to know that there is no trail of clues leading to the murderer in this novel. I felt a little cheated at this. Where's the pleasure in reading such a book if you can't have a crack at identifying the killer yourself. To be fair, though, there are several possible suspects and Mark Mills does keep readers guessing until the end.
The serial killer thread could quite easily have been dropped from the novel as the other aspects of the book were very good and made it a worthwhile read. If you are interested in the Second World War, and the siege of Malta in particular, then you'll probably find much of interest within the covers. There was a little too much emphasis on the military aspect for my taste and I did find myself skimming these bits from time to time.
Max Chadwick is an intriguing character and a relief from the fairly tedious "stiff upper lip" officers and their trophy wives. I thought Mark Mills developed his character brilliantly but to what end? What we learned about Chadwick's background never had any bearing on the course of the story and as such was superfluous. Mark Mills may have some considerable writing talent but he focuses it in all the wrong places. If only Mills had chosen to leave out the romance element, or reduce the huge passages about the air raids or even not bother with the killings he could have placed Chadwick in a more satisfying story.
I've never been to Malta but I did think Mills paints a very good portrait of the island, not just of the towns but of the countryside and of the neighbouring island of Gozo. If anything he gives us rather too much description and sets the story all over the island when it wasn't really necessary and only added confusion. I was already flicking back to remind myself who the characters were, I didn't want keep going back to the map as well. I couldn't really criticize the authenticity of either the landscapes or of the characters and both seemed entirely credible but it felt as if this concentration on detail had left Mills exhausted and unable to craft a good story.
The author does use one clever trick by beginning the novel with a scene in a London restaurant some time in the 1950s after the war has ended; there is a meeting of two men who obviously knew each other before the war. When the 1942 story races to its confused and hurried conclusion we return to the 1950s where everything is explained and there are some surprises in store. I was pleased some things were at least explained but I felt that this was a lazy way to achieve this. To introduce the characters and draw you in at the beginning in this way was an excellent device but to use the same means to provide a scant conclusion seemed like cheating to me.
It would be dishonest of me to say I didn't enjoy this novel but it certainly wasn't what I was expecting and definitely not what the blurb suggested. A novel without clues ought not to be described as a mystery yet all of the publisher's information pointed to that genre. I think it would have been more advantageous for the publishers to play on the "noir" style of the novel, the intrigue and the darkness that had the hallmarks of a 1940s thriller. Vaguely reminiscent of CJ Sansom's "Winter in Madrid", the novel has a very literary feel, more so than is needed for a simple murder mystery. If Mark Mills had curbed his tendency to over describe and overdevelop, this might have been a very fine book.