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In 1919, the young Tom Nash was in Petrograd in the aftermath of the Bolshevik Revolution, and working for the British Secret Intelligence Service, the SIS. He has failed in his attempt to wrest the love of his life, Irina, from the hands of the Cheka, but succeeded in avenging himself on her captor, Zakharov and escaping to Finland with the Soviet secret police in hot pursuit. After working for the SIS for some years, he took advantage of a unexpected inheritance from a great aunt he hardly knew and has retired to the south of France, to the Riviera, where he spends his time writing books about travel.
And this is where we find him sixteen years later as the novel proper opens. He has a lovely house with a view, good friends, a goddaughter he adores, and apparently ample funds to live a genial and comfortable life. True, the date is 1935, but whatever political storms may be brewing, Tom and his circle do not seem overly concerned with them. Then, seemingly out of nowhere, an attempt is made on his life, an attempt that betrays an uncomfortable familiarity with his personal circumstances. Immediately, Tom's old secret service experience comes to his aid, he evades the assassin, and is left with the knowledge that the killers are likely to return to try again and that someone in his immediate circle is helping them out.
HOUSE OF THE HUNTED has almost a split personality. Mills is very good at describing physical activity of various sorts (yachting, tennis, and the like) and very, very good at pursuits and chases. He has a great deal of fun with the stock elements of spy thrillers - stalking through streets and alleys or the countryside, car chases, (there's a really good one on and off the Corniche) - but the mood of tension and excitement is not sustained. Before we know it, we're in for long stretches of introspection and regret, too often couched in alarmingly lush prose. To his petite amie, Hélène, he confesses, "These hands have taken the lives of two men in the past two days. They've also killed before that. They are soiled, defiled. They will always be defiled. That may not bother you now, but one day it will. And I would think less of you if it didn't." Poor Tom may be a killer, but he is a romantic at heart.
There is another peculiarity about the book that deserves comment. The time is, as I said, 1935 and the place the South of France. By now, the menace represented by Nazism was becoming increasingly apparent, if not to everyone in the higher reaches of the British government. For the most part, the characters in HOUSE OF THE HUNTED appear determined to ignore the growing danger. It seldom arises in conversation, even though two of them have recently escaped Germany with the Gestapo hot on their heels. Fairly early in the novel, Tom's mentor in the SIS, Leonard, speaks of the necessity of containing Hitler, largely by means of clever diplomatic manoeuvring, but his objections to der Führer are not based on moral considerations, merely on power politics. Startlingly, late in the novel, Leonard has changed his tune. His earlier opposition to Hitler was rhetoric, "all part of the theatre." The real danger lies to the east: "We're already under attack from the Soviets. They've never understood why the Revolution didn't spread beyond their borders." This view was certainly well represented at the time among many influential people in the British establishment, including some who were, as we would say today, "soft on Nazism." But there is no sense in HOUSE OF THE HUNTED that Mills is questioning any of this. On the contrary, representative Soviet comrades are pretty much evil to the core. No Nazis are really present, though we are treated to a sentimental account of life in Bavaria, where the people are kind to birds, but that was before Hitler came to power.
If Mills is counting on his readers' historical memory to spot the ironies, I suspect that he is overly optimistic. So in the end, unlike more substantial historical thrillers set in the same period by writers like Alan Furst, Philip Kerr, and David Downing, HOUSE OF THE HUNTED will cheerfully entertain but is unlikely to shed any light on that dreadful decade.
HOUSE OF THE HUNTED first appeared as HOUSE OF THE HANGED in the UK.
§ Yvonne Klein is a writer, translator, and retired college English professor who lives in Montreal.
Reviewed by Yvonne Klein, April 2012
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