By Mark Mills
My new novel, The Information Officer, marks something of a new departure for me in that it’s a story that came about through pure chance. My previous two novels, Amagansett and The Savage Garden, are set in corners of the world that I know intimately — the South Fork of Long Island and the hills of Tuscany, respectively. I knew almost nothing about the Mediterranean island of Malta before stumbling across a second-hand book while rummaging in my local junk shop one afternoon. Malta Invicta by ‘Bartimeus’ is a slender little memoir, a brief account of the author’s time on Malta during the Second World War, but I knew before I was even halfway through the book that I had the setting for my next novel.
Malta’s wartime story is a hellish tale of siege and bombardment, as the combined Axis forces of Germany and Italy sought to starve the island into submission and obliterate it from the air. In May 1942, when my story is set, Malta had the dubious distinction of being the most bombed place on the planet ever. Why so? Why this little lump of rock just south of Italy? The answer is two-fold: because Malta was the lone Allied outpost in the middle of a Nazi-controlled sea, and although she was tiny, she still packed one hell of a punch. The island was home to a flotilla of British submarines as well as several squadrons of bombers, all of which wreaked havoc on the ships supplying Field Marshal Rommel’s North Africa campaign. The enemy had never underestimated the strategic significance of Malta, and they brought the full force of their military machines to bear on the island.
Dramatically speaking, the siege of Malta is an author’s dream. It offers any number of themes: romance, tragedy, heroism, cowardice, comedy, farce, hope, despair, and, ultimately, triumph in the face of extreme adversity. An appealing cocktail, no doubt about it. But what grabbed me, what really grabbed me as I continued to research the subject, was the almost absurd normality of life under siege. Even as the bombs were crashing down around their ears, British officials were dusting off their papers and suggesting that the meeting be relocated to a room with four walls. The weary fatalism of the downtrodden, or the good old British stiff upper-lip? Probably a bit of both, with a small dose of madness thrown in. Reading the accounts of life at the time, it’s clear to us now that they were existing in a semi-permanent state of exhaustion and shock.
This is something I’ve tried to capture in the novel. No one is behaving normally, even when they think they are. This is certainly true of Major Max Chadwick, my hero, for want of a better word. He’s not a career soldier; he’s a bureaucrat, a man tasked with massaging the news on the island in order to maintain the morale of the Maltese. When it becomes clear that there’s a killer on the loose, picking off locals girls, and that the murderer may well be a British serviceman, Max finds himself torn between his duty to his superiors and his duty to his own wavering morality.
The “special relationship” between the British and the Maltese sits at the heart of the book, and owes its origins to the peculiar manner in which Malta became part of the Empire in the early nineteenth century. After two years of French occupation, the islanders effectively gifted their home to Britain. A gentler, more paternalistic brand of colonialism was required on the part of the mother country, however, even this proved too much for certain elements within Maltese society, not least of all the Church. The Maltese are fiercely Catholic, and many felt a far more natural allegiance to their Italian neighbors than to their Protestant overlords from northern Europe. These tensions peaked at the outbreak of the Second World War, when the British authorities rounded up all known pro-Italian sympathizers on the island — many of whom were men of considerable standing — interning them without due process and deporting them to Uganda in early 1942.
This, then, is the uneasy situation that prevails in May 1942, when The Information Officer is set, and the military authorities seem bent on burying anything that might aggravate it. Or are there other agendas at play behind the scenes of Malta Command?
Max’s investigation unfolds over two turbulent weeks; my own Maltese journey — considerably less perilous! — took up two years of my life, and all because of a chance discovery in a junk shop.
WATCH: Mark Mills discuss The Information Officer
READ: An excerpt of The Information Officer (published by Random House)
DISCUSS: Is the serendipity of book discovery dead in the age of the e-book?