Welcome to Murder by the Book's blog about what we've read recently. You can find our website at www.mbtb.com.

Monday, April 23, 2012

House of the Hunted, by Mark Mills (hardcover, $26)

Mark Mills' books are very polished and suave. This book, from our modern retrospective viewpoint, feels like the encapsulation of an aesthetic from a time decades past. A time when spies played at clever games and had to think on their feet, a time when technology hadn't taken over. The story is set on the brink of World War II and is a prelude to the Cold War. Mills' characters dance through layers of subterfuge to define the shifting alliances and allegiances of the countries or causes they represent.

Tom Nash was a spy in the Soviet Union for Great Britain. He was a trained killer and infiltrator. Until he gave it up. After a short burst of storyline in Russia, we next see Tom sixteen years later on the south coast of France, living in bucolic happiness, retired from the spy business, awaiting a celebratory reunion with some of his nearest and dearest friends: Leonard, a former fellow spy and current bureaucrat; Venetia, Leonard's wife, and Lucy, Leonard's stepdaughter; Yevgeny and Fanya, art dealers; and Barnaby, an old schoolmate. With the addition of a few new acquaintances, they are the assortment of louche, disappointed, ingenuous, dissembling, beguiling, and weary characters of Mills' play.

Then someone tries to kill Tom in his own home, and the game is back on.

Tom Nash has given up his cold spy persona for that of a warm human being and worldly ex-pat Brit, so the murderous attempt throws him. Soon after, he must attend a dinner he is hosting:

Tom struggled to engage with any of it, a stranger at his own feast, almost an impostor, only there because he had somehow managed to cheat his destiny less than twenty-four hours previously.

It is Mills' overlying, constant quiet tone that keeps it from being labeled a "thriller" or a "spy adventure," even though there is quite a lot of action. It feels as though this book might have been written in the 1940s or '50s. At the same time, there are some characters, e.g., Lucy, who are clearly cinematic -- added for the benefit of any future movies, perhaps. While I can't say that it was a surprising book, it is thoroughly entertaining, the characters are well-described, and I now desperately want to vacation at La Rayol. There are clever flourishes and sincere moments. 

Cf. Tom Gabbay's "The Tehran Conviction" and Barry Unsworth's "Land of Marvels."

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