Saturday, May 1, 2010

The Information Officer

By Mark Mills
New York, Random House, 2009
Week 17 Fiction
The Information Officer by Mark Mills takes place on the island of Malta in 1942. Malta, which I had to look up, by the way, sits as a “little lump of rock in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea” between Italy and Alexandria, Egypt, and played a critical role in the attempt to gain control of Egypt. Once owned by Britain, Malta was a staging area for the planes and submarines of the Allies and a dumping ground for bombs from both German and Italian fighter planes.
The book is billed as a murder mystery, which it is, but it is also an espionage thriller and a period piece as well. The setting is unusual, which makes it doubly interesting. I can’t think of any other book I have ever read based in Malta. The cast of characters is a tight-knit community of military officers and wives (mostly British) as well as other Brits and a couple of Americans. We are introduced to a few Maltese as well, including the editor of a Maltese newspaper, Lilian, and a detective, Busuttil. The main character, Max, is the information officer for the island. His job is to put a bit of a positive spin on the horrendous battles that happen in the skies over the island several times daily. For instance, in one early scene, one of the island’s older citizens takes down a German spitfire with his shotgun, causing great celebration among the beleaguered citizens.
A psychopathic killer is brutalizing young Maltese dance hall hostesses. The powers that be want it kept secret because they think that the deaths are part of an espionage plot. Max, on the other hand, feels compelled to try to solve the mystery. The denouement comes just as the battle for Malta reaches a fever pitch, so the reader is thrust into battles on several fronts.
The weak link in this book is the character development. It is hard to feel too much compassion for any of the characters. As a matter of fact, I had a bit of a struggle distinguishing between most of the men and had to keep reminding myself who they were; some are quite extraneous. The women are a little more finely drawn. Having said that, the development of the killer’s persona is rather interestingly done; his madness is shown in chapters devoted entirely to his history and thoughts.
The main strength, as well as a reason to read the book, is the understanding of the resilience of the Maltese people in the midst of unbelievable odds. At one point, in 1942, they were the most “bombed patch of earth on the planet.” Mills does a fine job developing the details about the struggle to get food and other necessities as well as the portrayal of the vast amount of time the citizenry spent in the cellars and caves of the island during the daily bombings. This was something I knew nothing about, and I relished this new information.
This brings me to one of the reasons I like to read murder mysteries—for the setting. I find that good mystery writers spend a great deal of time researching the setting for their books, and readers are able to find out a lot more than "whodunnit.” Two of my favorite mysteries, Smilla's Sense of Snow and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo take place in settings I am not used to reading about -- Greenland and Sweden. I also have to add that I read The Information Officer on vacation in Florida. It made a good beach read.
Mark Mills is a British author whose second book, The Savage Garden, received very favorable reviews. Most reviewers said that they much preferred The Savage Garden to The Information Officer.
This review comes from a book review website that is new to me, and I thought this was one of the better reviews of The Information Officer.
Here is an interview of author Mark Mills. It also contains newsreel footage from the battle for Malta.
Here is a website that tells the story of the Battle for Malta.

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