House of the Hanged, By Mark Mills

Spy's story is worth investigating

A variety of metaphorical ghosts haunt the characters in Mark Mills's mesmerising new novel. But there are also ghosts hovering behind the author – inspirational shades, steering the author to his best work in an already accomplished career.

The setting is France in the summer of 1935. Le Rayol may not be the most prestigious part of the Riviera, but it still offers a retreat from the pending war. A motley community of refugees, expats and underachieving artistic types lulls itself into a false sense of security. The group includes Tom Nash, keen to erase a troubled past in the secret services. But as anyone who has ever read a novel featuring an ex-spook protagonist will be well aware, the chances of leaving behind a clandestine past are remote – and so it proves with Tom. He has a lot to lose, notably his adored goddaughter Lucy. When a nocturnal attempt is made on his life, Tom realises that someone is dealing in the kind of betrayal that was once his watchword.

Readers of such previous Mills novels as The Information Officer and The Savage Garden will not be surprised that the character drawing here is as mercurial as ever. Tom's past (spying for the British in Russia during the revolution) has positioned a Damoclean sword above his head, and a tragic love for a woman during this turbulent period has left him damaged and vulnerable. His struggles to identify who he can and cannot trust among his well-oiled coterie of American, Russian, German and British refugees are fascinatingly handled, with the dalliances, games of tennis and copiously alcoholic dinner parties the perfect backdrop to the intrigue.

But the reader familiar with the great literary figures of the past may discern other hands on Mark Mills's shoulders: the picture of indolent expats in seductive foreign climates echoes Scott Fitzgerald. And there is also a heavyweight Anglo-Polish ghost who has clearly energised Mills's literary batteries. The terrible cost of the betrayals of the espionage worlds and the Manichean struggle between elemental forces suggests that a novel or two by Joseph Conrad permanently reside in the author's luggage. If this talented young British writer has some work to do before moving further up the Parnassian slopes towards the writers who inspired him, there is much evidence on every page of House of the Hanged that Mills has everything to play for.

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