House of the Hanged by Mark Mills caught me by surprise. On the surface, this is a gentle novel, imbued with the heat and colour of a riviere summer. But, this is the mid 1930s and almost everyone the novel evokes, whether sunbathing by the waves or mingling with a cocktail after supper, is in exile. Their host, Tom Nash, is also in danger. As a second world war approaches, his past has caught up with him and everything is about to fall apart about him. But whom among his friends has caused this house of cards to collapse?
Tom Nash’s fate lies at the heart of House of the Hanged, named after a previous owner and portentous for the possible fate of the present. For want of a better word, Nash had been a British spy in Russia during the Revolution. His love Irina fell victim to the times and, never forgetting this loss, Nash served as an agent, working for his close friend Leonard before escaping from this world to live as a writer on the French Riviera. There he is entertained by a community of British, American, Russian and German refugees, including Leonard, his wife and his stepdaughter, Lucy, Tom’s goddaughter, and, quite possibly, the love of Tom’s life.
When an attempt is made on Tom’s life in the middle of the night, Tom and Leonard attempt to untangle the complicated lives of the community in order to uncover the identity of the person who has betrayed Tom. No-one is safe from suspicion, including Lucy and including Leonard. Meanwhile, the local police chief looks on. One thing is certain, there will be another attempt on Tom’s life.
House of the Hanged is a page turner. On the surface all is calm and gentle, as is the life of Tom and his friends. A game of tennis is as tense as life gets while every day is a succession of sundrenched beaches, dinners and cocktails. Behind the scenes, however, Tom Nash recalls his past life in Russia, the acts he committed there, his attempts to escape that time, all surrounded by the fear of increasing fascism in Germany and Italy. His all-consuming love, after the loss of Irina, is for Lucy, but even she has secrets that he has yet to uncover.
Mark Mills writes beautifully. Since reading House of the Hanged, I read Savage Garden, which tells the tale of a young British scholar who is sent by his university supervisor, soon after the end of World War 2, to a castle in Italy to uncover the history of the building. There, he learns about some of the crimes that took place at the castle during its occupation by Germans. Good as this book is, and it is good, House of the Hanged is better.
The compelling air of menace comes from the depth of the characterisation and from the vivid realisation of a world as fragile as glass and about to shatter. We meet a variety of characters through the novel, each introduced almost incidentally but clues are dropped that help Tom to learn their significance. The menace that faces Tom becomes increasingly frightening, for him and us -chairs wedged under doors to keep them locked, no sleeping at night, guns and bullets kept to hand – as well as the realisation that this false but beautiful world that has developed around him must collapse. This is the end of Lucy’s childhood.