Mark Mills hit the scene in 2004 with his novel Amagansett, winning the CWA’s New Blood Dagger. The novel was subsequently retitled The Whaleboat House.
The Savage Garden, like The Whaleboat House, is set in the past, this time in 1958. It’s not your usual crime novel. (And how wonderful to find something quite different!) This is more of a leisurely paced read and feels like literary/general fiction for most of its length. Indeed, I wondered if I was reading my usual genre until the latter half of the book.
Its beauty lies in its subtlety, wonderfully comprehensive (and well researched) evocation of setting and strong characterisation. The hint that becomes knowledge of hidden secrets is the compelling factor that turns the pages. Along the way, there is some absolutely beautiful prose to treat the reader.
In a nutshell: Cambridge student Adam Strickland makes a reluctant student when it comes to his thesis. But Professor Leonard offers him a ready-made project which he cannot refuse. In the hills of Tuscany sits a large villa which the professor describes as "an impressive, if somewhat pedestrian example of High Renaissance Tuscan vernacular". But its garden is to be Adam’s project: "…conceived and laid out by a grieving husband to the memory of his dead wife…" Thus the unquestioning Adam heads to Italy as the guest of matriarch Signora Docci, to investigate the garden and its meaning.
The garden, the subject of Adam’s thesis, and the death of the wife that led to the garden, make up the first mystery to be solved, if Adam can pull it off. But on top of that, the present day family Docci, into which Adam is welcomed, is also a family of secrets and recent tragedy. Signora Docci lost a son in the last days of Nazi occupation, but is the family’s story all it seems…
In the present, Adam the reluctant student turns into the reluctant investigator. He pursues the family story due to what appears to be curiosity only. He is shaken in this endeavour by the late and sudden arrival in Tuscany of his money-scrounging artistic brother – the black sheep of his own family – a potentially perceived afterthought-type intrusion in proceedings that might seem off-piste to the reader, but it actually works quite well.
The Savage Garden is a novel about the art of duplicity. Does anyone in this novel have nothing to hide?
This is a leisurely read for those who like a mystery or two; sans forensics, gore and public body intervention. It also ventures into beautiful gardens and classic literature. It’s a beautiful novel in its prose, with a slowly developing mystery element that does not divulge its truth until the bitter end.
Whether Adam pulls it off for his thesis, you have to read the novel – but with his second novel, Mills certainly pulls it off. This edges into the crime genre and quite rightly too.