Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, they meet in Mario's, a London trattoria, on a warm evening in 1951. "You don't seem very pleased to see me," observes one, tilting his cocktail. "The last time I saw you, you tried to kill me," explains the other.
So begins Mark Mills' "The Information Officer," a novel so triumphantly old-fashioned, so double-upholstered with the stuff of classics, it reads like the story of "Casablanca" revisited, like a vanished Graham Greene. Did the 20th century produce an English-language novelist more perversely underappreciated than Greene? Here is -- or, rather, there was; Greene died in 1991 -- an artist whose imagination imprinted noir cinema (1949's "The Third Man," based on his novella and adapted screenplay and shot on location in ravaged Vienna, is widely hailed as the greatest British film ever made) and literature -- those sinuous espionage yarns like "The Ministry of Fear" and "Stamboul Train," with their moral depth and wary, weary spies, prefigured the canons of Ambler and Deighton, Le Carré and Ludlum.
Mills too has worked in film, although like Greene he's better known for his moody crime fiction, including "Amagansett" and "The Savage Garden." And though this utterly ravishing third novel seethes with femmes fatale and double agents, it most strikingly evokes Greene's colonial stories, especially "The Heart of the Matter," set in Sierra Leone, and the Saigon saga "The Quiet American." As it happens, Mills doesn't venture quite so far afield: From that brief encounter in the London restaurant, "The Information Officer" instead swoons back nine summers to the sunstruck Mediterranean isle of Malta -- already by June of 1942 "the most bombed patch of earth on the planet. Ever."
A British commonwealth riven by grass-roots nationalism, this "little lump of rock in the middle of the Med" had proved vitally disruptive to Hitler's supply lines. (Churchill famously championed its protection on the floor of the House of Commons.) Now, after two years of Axis siege, dance-halls fester along the main drags in the capital of Valletta, while officers' wives tipple pink gin in the barracks and air-raid sirens sound nightly dirges. Installed in the local information office is a callow young Englishman, Maj. Max Chadwick, whose remit comprises fatality statistics, surveillance of Axis radio stations and -- most important -- human-interest journalism designed to stoke the natives' resolve. ("That's not a word we like to use," chides Max when a new recruit likens the work to propaganda.)
Max and his cronies -- the priggish commander he's cuckolding, an affable surgeon, a suspiciously well-informed Yank -- languish in the lethal twilight of the siege, sucking on cigarettes and wolfing down rations. ("I've had to take this in twice since I've been here," a woman complains of her saggy swimsuit.) But amid the cannonade and casualties, a killer goes to work, murdering Maltese prostitutes -- "sherry queens," in the local patois -- and disguising the deaths as accidents of war. When one victim is discovered with a Navy epaulet clutched in her stricken hand, Max deduces that her murderer must be among the crew of the submarine Upstanding, recently arrived in Malta and due to depart nine days hence.
It's a shopworn device, the ticking clock. But Mills is so persuasive a historian, and so incisive in his portraiture of a twisted mind, that those creaky gears grind smooth and swift throughout "The Information Officer." And he posits a fearful symmetry between the villain -- a coldly credible sadist, blinkered and blighted, whose anonymous narrative the book metes out in small doses, like a poison drip -- and the world he occupies, morally defective, thrashing in chaos. "In the grand scheme of things," reasons a reluctant Max, "what did the lives of a few innocent Maltese girls matter?"
Mills steeps the island in death and decay: disused floating docks fan across a harbor "like the splayed fingers of an arthritic hand"; in a demolished cemetery, "corpses in various states of decomposition had been scattered in all directions." The dispossessed natives retreat each night to warrens "bristling with iron bedsteads and wooden bunks," where "old women, beads in hand, told the rosary before ramshackle shrines to the Virgin . . . [while] mothers poked at pans on sputtering Primus stoves." Equally grim scenes haunted the continent, of course, but this novel locates a peculiar poignancy in the Maltese resistance -- "loyal little Malta," as the information office peddles it, trembling before the Nazi wave.
Mills packs chewy period argot -- "The cockpit was a pilot's 'office,' and they never landed, they 'pancaked' " -- into his witty, rhythmic dialogue. And few writers at work today modulate pace so smoothly, even daringly. Time and again throughout "The Information Officer," Mills eases the throttle, decelerating enough to observe still-life silhouettes: a quartet of officers swigging sundowners and swapping congenial barbs; an intelligence operative cracking golf balls into the sea; two tentative lovers sharing a kiss beneath an orange tree. In the book's sensational final act, author and hero alike gun their motors, as Max bolts across the island astride a gasping motorcycle, the skies churning with Spitfires, bombs walloping the earth below.
This is a magnificent entertainment, at once stiff-upper-lipped and moist-eyed, sober yet irreverent. And as a coming-of-age novel, a chronicle of one young man's brutal moral education amid the horror and strange romance of siege, "The Information Officer" quietly affirms one of Greene's better-known credos: "Innocence is a kind of insanity."
Mallory researches modernist literature at New College, Oxford.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times