Mark Mills’ impressive fourth novel, House of the Hunted, is all about imminent loss.
The loss of its protagonist’s safety and anonymity. The loss of his relationship with people he has grown to adore and depend upon. And, since this story is set on the French Riviera in 1935—just as Europe is about to explode with a second world war—the loss of peace and tranquility and a lifestyle that operates according to a different clock from the one by which most folks arrange their days.
Did you read the Rap Sheet’s remembrance of Arthur Lyons?
A British screenwriter turned author, Mills made a big splash in 2004 with his debut novel, Amagansett (aka The Whaleboat House). It was a character-rich and richly nuanced yarn that focused on Basque-born fisherman Conrad Labarde, who in 1947 pulls the drowned corpse of a millionaire’s lovely daughter from the waters off Long Island, New York, and then sets out to solve her death, uncovering all manner of small-town secrets in the process. Nobody was terribly surprised when Amagansett walked away with the UK Crime Writers’ Association’s 2004 John Creasey Memorial Dagger award for the best book by a previously unpublished writer.
Mills followed that up with The Savage Garden (2007), about a young scholar whose researches into the landscaping of a historic Tuscan villa lead him to suspect that murders were committed there four centuries apart. And then in 2010, Mills’ The Information Officer saw print. A Graham Greene-ish yarn about love and politics and cover-ups, it transports readers back to the bomb-ravaged Mediterranean island of Malta during World War II, where a British public relations officer/propagandist must determine whether it’s in the long-term best interests of Allied forces to reveal that a serial killer might be targeting “dance hostesses” in the island’s groggeries.
The House of the Hunted fits neatly into the pattern of Mills’ storytelling.
It’s 1935 on southern France’s scenic Côte d’Azur. Tom Nash, a rather successful British writer of travel literature, is just beginning the social whirl that for many years has occupied his summers. His vivacious, quick-witted and dark-tressed goddaughter, Lucy, has recently disembarked at the village of Le Rayol, where she’ll soon join her quarrelsome parents in their “Art Nouveau eyesore” adjacent to Nash’s own rather ostentatious abode. And Nash is looking forward to spoiling the girl, more than a little bit. He has a sailboat to give Lucy for her fast-approaching 21st birthday, and even though it might encourage her fantasies about a romantic entanglement with her godfather, 18 years her senior, he’s willing to take the chance.
After all, it’s been a very long time since Nash felt such fondness for a woman. Not since he tried, but failed spectacularly, to save his Russian girlfriend, Irina Bibikov, from execution by the Bolsheviks back in 1919.
That’s right: Tom Nash has weathered a life far more audacious and dangerous than most, having spent many years as an operative of Britain’s Special Intelligence Service (SIS). However, he didn’t like what kind of man he became during that period of duplicity and violence, so now he’s trying hard—with assistance from good drink, fine food and the distractions of friends—to put those experiences behind him.
As anyone who’s ever read a novel about ex-spies surely knows, though, such people might relinquish their phony identifications and secret codes, but they can’t so effortlessly escape their pasts.
Tom Nash is learning the truth of that all too fast.
On a night shortly after Lucy arrives at Le Rayol, he’s attacked in his own bed by an Italian hit man wielding a chloroform-drenched rag, a pistol and an equally lethal syringe. Nash manages to get the better of his assailant, then chases him to his death over a precipice and disposes of his body in a nearby bay. But this damaged and vulnerable former agent is nonetheless unnerved by the whole episode. If one person came to do him in, another is likely to follow. Nash needs to know why he’s been targeted, whether it has something to do with one of his previous assignments for the SIS. He also wants to learn just how that Italian assassin was so thoroughly acquainted with the layout of his house. Is it because somebody close to Nash is behind the attack? Somebody he trusts? Somebody he loves?
How he goes about figuring all of that out separates The House of the Hunted from so many other, more plot-driven thrillers. Nash’s methodology is lacking in hot lights and rubber hoses; instead he substitutes a regimen of covert clue-finding during tennis matches and day-long treasure hunts, and over expansive dinners with the local ranks of Russian, German and British émigrés.
Mills eschews Elmore Leonard’s counsel to fictionists (too often accepted as gospel) that they ought not “go into great detail describing places and things,” and gives readers vivid word-pictures of coastlines and country hamlets. He’s not afraid, either, to flesh out secondary characters, whom less self-assured authors might have barely sketched in to the story. And his recounting of Tom Nash’s past (complete with a naughty vicar father and a great-aunt who met him only once, but rewarded him well for that experience) extends pleasantly beyond the demands of plot development.
There’s a refreshing unhurriedness to Mills’ storytelling that plays well against this novel’s episodes of high drama, and that suggests the literary influences of Ian Fleming and Joseph Conrad. It’s a languid pacing that is better reflected in the lazy-summer sort of cover given to this book in Britain (where it carries the title The House of the Hanged)—shown at left—than on the more sinister American jacket above.
Readers tired of being dragged bodily through rapid-clip adventures, over one cliffhanger after the next, with only workmanlike prose to lubricate their passage, might find The House of the Hunted to be a splendid alternative. Just be sure to wear your summer whites and top off your gin and tonic before you crack the spine.