Sex under the bombs
by Noel Grima
‘The Information Officer’ by Mark Mills
REVIEWED BY Noel Grima
The number of thrillers etc. set in Malta continues to grow. Over the past few years we have had quite a few focusing around the Great Siege but it has been some time since we had a novel set during the last war in Malta.
This story is mostly about expats, but the Maltese constitute the suffering, sullen, angry backdrop to whatever was going on.
For a man who, I suspect, has a limited knowledge of Malta, the book is refreshingly exact. Not just in the toponymy, or the distance between one place and another, but also on much that went on during the last war.
It has been said that Mills stumbled upon the inspiration for his third novel while browsing through a local junk shop in his native Oxford. From a bin of secondhand books he plucked out a dusty little memoir written by someone who had survived the siege of Malta. He went home and read it in a single sitting, and knew he had the setting for his next book.
The Malta he describes is no mere backdrop. The people, the place, what was going on at that time become just one other character in the novel.
We get a sort of Upstairs-Downstairs, the Maltese being bombed senseless and losing their homes and the Brits having a party on a Sliema roof watching the Germans bomb Valletta.
This may be a bit off: the Brits were in it as much as the Maltese: they were the ones manning the guns, running the airports, endangering their lives in ships and submarines. Yet the impression Mills gives as well is that the Brits were some kind of super-race getting on with their lives, stiff upper lip and whatnot, even in the direst of circumstances.
It’s 1942, two years into the war and Malta had already become the most bombed place in the world, getting more bombs than London City itself. Most of the main towns, especially Valletta, are heaps of rubble. Malta is strategically very important: it sits right in the middle of the Axis lines of communications.
The Germans decide the only way was to invade the island. Yet this information was kept from the Maltese. The British, cannily, begin planning how to deploy away from the island.
Despite everything, life goes on. The Maltese adapt to living in shelters (described in great detail) while down in the Gut, life goes on, perhaps better, given the throngs of seamen and soldiers with money to spend and long away from home.
Max Chadwick is a sort of general PRO for the government. His job, in true Newspeak tradition, is to massage and filter the information so that the Maltese do not get discouraged and if possible find unsuspected reserves of courage. Max is well into the social whirl of the time – a group of British officers and their wives and girlfriends – including a lone American who seems to have his own sources of information about the war, a British surgeon who is run off his feet by the hours dealing with casualties, and a submarine commander and his bewitching wife.
Then a girl is killed. OK, there were hundreds getting killed so one more would not have made a difference. Somehow Max gets to know that this girl was not killed by bombs, but by a serial killer on the loose. He reasons that if this thing gets out, all Malta will turn against the British, and so, against the advice of the top levels of the authorities, he just has to investigate. More so when he discovers that the girl had a submarine officer’s epaulette in her closed fist.
Mark Mills brings his story to a climax, but I found this to be rather contrived. The key scene is where Max has a full roaring session of sex while Valletta was being bombed all around them. Go figure.