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Thursday 26 October 2023



This is the third book by Mark Mills – each one different in place and time. The Information Officer was published in 2009. It’s set in Malta in 1942 during the second great siege (the first being against the Turks in 1565). [The book brought back memories of the time my wife Jen and I lived in Rabat in 1974-75].

There are two maps – one of the Maltese islands with significant places shown; and a second of the Grand Harbour – which will prove helpful if you’re unfamiliar with Malta.

It begins (mistakenly in my opinion) in London, May 1951 with a viewpoint by a restaurant’s maître d’ with the hint of a spoiler. The real story begins in Malta, April 1942 when a young woman is murdered.

Major Max Chadwick is the Information Officer in Malta, responsible for reporting to the populace with suitable material to maintain morale. Max has a number of friends, among them Freddie, the medic who works out of Mtarfa hospital [I worked there in the 1970s; it’s now a school and apartments]; Elliott, an American serviceman; and Ralph, a cavalier pilot.

When Max is told that there have been three young women murdered yet the authorities seem to be hushing it up, he decides to do some private investigating himself. Digging around for clues is not easy for an amateur, granted, and it is made more difficult by the wartime conditions, notably the constant air raids.

The submarine base on Manoel Island, the Tenth Submarine Flotilla, was one of several targets for Italian and German bombers; inevitably, the airfields were prime targets too: Ta’ Qali, Hal Far and Luqa; and of course the many quaysides and docks of the Grand Harbour and its inlets. [Jen learned to drive in Malta and took her driving-test on the old airfield at Ta’ Qali].

Mills quickly immerses the reader in the place and period. ‘It was typical of many Maltese homes in that the unassuming façade gave no indication of the treasures that lay behind it’ (p21). [When living there we’d seen many examples of this.] He also has a fine turn of phrase: I liked his ‘bewilderment of bastions’ when describing Valletta.

‘…he accompanied her and her mangy dog to the Blessing of the Animals at the church of Santa Maria Vittoriosa’ (p130). [We’d seen these ceremonies in Malta and Spain].

‘… he’d been forced to crash-land in a field – a near-impossible thing to do on Malta without hitting a stone wall’ (p191). [Not much has changed with this overbuilt island].

‘The Point de Vue Hotel stood on the south side of the Saqqija, the leafy square separating Mdina and Rabat’ (p230). The hotel ‘took a direct hit during an afternoon raid, killing six’ (p230). [We enjoyed a splendid meal here].

He mentions the megalithic temples of Hagar Qim and Mnajdra (p243) and on the same page on Dingli Cliffs the primary Radio Direction Finding station is found there; [even now, though the spying is somewhat more sophisticated].

He conveys the absolute terror of living through intense bombing day after day. ‘The ground beneath him had bucked like a living thing, and all around him the air had rung to the tune of flying splinters, a lethal symphony of rock and metal overlaid by more obvious notes: the whistle and shriek of falling bombs, the thump and crump of explosions, the staccato bark of the Bofors firing back blind, and the screams of the diving Stukas’ (p43).

Intermittently, we are privy to the male murderer’s thoughts, jotted down in his notebook, though he remains faceless; a man without empathy, a thoroughly unpleasant specimen. The mystery of his identity is maintained almost to the end.

It was obvious that Mills did a lot of research for the story and highlights two of the many books he consulted: Malta Magnificent by Francis Gerard and Fortress Malta by James Holland. ‘Twice the tonnage of bombs dropped on London during the worst twelve months of the Blitz had rained down on their heads in the last two months alone’ (p61).

There are a couple of interesting choices of character names he has used:

Chadwick lakes are formed behind a number of dams constructed by Sir Osbert Chadwick, a British engineer, in the late 19th century.

Mabel Edeline Strickland was the editor of The Times of Malta before and during the war. Mills’s book The Savage Garden has a main character called Adam Strickland…

If you have any interest in wartime skulduggery or Malta, you should find the book a fascinating read.

I’d also recommend Malta: Blitzed but not Beaten by Philip Vella. And of course Nicholas Monsarrat’s The Kappillan of Malta.

Editorial comment.

Two characters go to see a film at the Rabat Plaza (p229). Jen and I often went to the Adelphi cinema in Rabat (sometimes twice a week!); according to the Old Cinemas in Malta Facebook group, Rabat has only ever had two cinemas – the Adelphi and the Astoria.

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