Where Dead Men Meet - Mark Mills ***
There's a blend of historical and personal in Mark Mills' Where Dead Men Meet, the story opening in 1937 in Paris before expanding on to other major cities in Europe that are in a period of uncertainty and fear about war spreading. It starts out like an espionage thriller, and it manages to keep up a sense of escalating danger as deals and double-deals are exposed, but as the story moves towards the family revelations of one individual caught up in it all, the journey takes on the character of being more of a personal journey.
The death of a nun at the orphanage that looked after him comes as a terrible shock to Luke Hamilton. a former pilot and now minor British intelligence official in Paris, but it's not long before it becomes clear that it might have something to do with Luke's unknown parentage and the mysterious circumstances of his arrival at the orphanage as a baby. It's only when he is rescued from an attempt on his life by a man he meets in front of Picasso's commentary on the times in his painting Guernica, which is being displayed in the Paris Expo, that Luke realises that he may be unwittingly involved in a matter of great international importance.
That would at least initially appear to be the case, but it's not as simple as that. Having rescued Luke from assassination, Borodin sends Luke off in a hurry to Zurich via Konstanz, where Luke finds out much about the current situation in Europe, particularly in the areas bordering on Germany, but little about what part he has to play in it all. In Konstanz he briefly becomes involved in an organisation led by a young woman called Pippi, who are smuggling Jewish intellectuals and scientists out of Germany with their families. It's during one such operation that Luke has a run-in with a dangerous Abwehr officer which is to have knock-on implications, and with the gaps in his family background, Luke finds that few are willing to trust him and he isn't sure who he can trust either.
It's only belatedly that we really get a sense of the drama that has led to the mystery of Luke's identity, and as it becomes more interested in Luke, Where Dead Men Meet ought to become more personal. Luke however has no real bonds to a family that he lost a long time ago and a feud that is really of no concern to him, so there remains something of an emotional void at the heart of the book. Mills attempts to make up for this to some extent through Pippi's personal journey, seeking revenge for the death of her husband Johan at the hands of Nazis and traitors in Konstanz, and in her growing closeness to Luke. It's handled in a refreshingly natural way, with no big melodramatic moments, but I didn't feel we got to know the characters well enough to really care one way about this or about how larger dramatic events beyond their control have shaped their lives.
Mills' writing is more dialogue driven with little room for description or reflection, but if nothing else Where Dead Men Meet is nonetheless an enjoyable spin through Europe at a time of great international tensions and complications. If there's anything you can take from the questions surrounding Luke's identity, it's that family and alliances are important matters during this period, but they can also very complicated affairs. If it becomes difficult for Luke to rationalise the ties that bind him to France, to England, to Italy and Croatia and impossible to form a sense of identity from nationality, it's a question that could be applied to people in most of the countries in Europe that Luke travels through during this time. What matters in Where Dead Men Meet is that it shows that there are other ways to define oneself that are not limited by borders.
Where Dead Men Meet by Mark Mills is published by Headline Review on 17th November 2016.
Where Dead Men Meet - Mark Mills ***