I read and certainly enjoyed the previous novel from Mark Mills, The Savage Garden and thus, I looked forward to reading The Information Officer. However, I will admit at the outset that I was disappointed with this one, his third novel. (I am still to read his first novel Amagansett, later to carry a revised title in the UK of The Whaleboat House.)
This is one of those novels that clearly divides opinion. At the time of writing, there are 40 reviews on Amazon UK, ranging all the way through from 1 star to 5 stars. The mode average comes in at 4 stars, so it errs onto the positive; indeed, if we take 3 stars as a sort of "sitting on the fence" indicator for which 9 people expressed that opinion, the positives then outweigh the negatives with 22 people on 4 or 5 stars and 9 people on 1 or 2 stars. Elsewhere, Mike Ripley at Eurocrime thought the book "a good thriller", "a stunning book about human beings surviving under extreme circumstances…" and a "master-class in fluent story-telling." Laura Wilson at The Guardian hailed the novel as "A compelling, vividly rendered slow burn of a book which culminates in an electrifying climax." So what's the book about? Having read the cover synopsis before reading the novel, I can say it encapsulates most of the plot of the novel, so I'll tempt you with less:
On Malta, in the spring of 1942, with the British the last line of defence against the Nazis as the people of Malta suffer daily bombing raids, Max Chadwick achieves the title of the post for which he has been fulfilling duties already: that of The Information Officer. His role is to ensure information reported maintains island morale. Max is then handed proof that suggests a British officer is murdering local women. To try and avoid the disasterous impact a public investigation would cause, Max decides to pursue matters privately and secretly. But his superiors quickly get wind of his actions and stifle the case. Max, however, is not about to be grounded…
The second part of the opening of The Information Officer contains a very tense and well-written passage on the attack on a woman, which engages. I cared what happened to this woman and I wanted to see justice done. Unfortunately, the plot is slowed by spending far too much time thereafter introducing rather too many characters and their lives on the island. Yes, the bombing raids are invoked with a sense of reality, but there is too much of it as well as the socialising of the troops and their love interests. The momentum of the plot is lost and on times, it was hard to remember why I was reading and hard to remain engaged.
The passages describing the killer's developing abuse of women and lust for attack are superb. Here we have an extremely nasty psychopath in the making, wonderfully avoiding such clichés as "started out killing animals when a child". It all felt very real.
Actual movement on the plot, involving some credible investigation is an acceleration in the latter part of the novel. And thumbs up to Mark Mills here, there were two big twists, one I saw coming, the other I didn't and it was beautifully played.
All in all, The Information Officer was a bit of a mixed bag for me. Some sections were shades of brilliance, whereas others proved bland and an obstacle to plot momentum. If you thoroughly enjoyed The Savage Garden as I did, please give it a go and let me know what you think, for this wouldn't be the first time I've come down just slightly on the "other" of the fence, i.e. not wholly positive when others have glowed more than gold. Dennis Lehane's Shutter Island, now coming as a movie, was hailed by many at the time but I thought the plot dénouement was a cheat on the reader. Much as I enjoyed Tom Rob Smith's Child 44 for its evocation of time, place and culture, this was another plot dénouement that didn't work for me – totally unrealistic.
The Information Officer was a sum of parts that did not meld into a whole, neat package; a bit like a general fiction train where one of the carriages contains a crime that needs to be solved before reaching the final destination. But this won't stop me reading his next as I was so impressed with The Savage Garden. Perhaps Mills has peaked a little later on the "second novel syndrome" front?
One final point: bedroom doors do not remain closed in this novel and at the time of writing there's a lot of MSM commentary on who writes sex best: men or women? (Because Kate Copstick, new owner of the Erotic Review said she thought men write it better when promoting the re-launch.) Well, Mills gets the detail at just the right level, doesn't flounce off into silly metaphors and manages to pique interest with intrigue. This is another author and novel we won't see on the shortlist for the Literary Review's Bad Sex Award later this year.