Mark Mills had me from the first sentence of Where Dead Men Meet. “Had Sister Agnes been less devout, she would have lived to celebrate her forty-eighth birthday.” Well, Jeez.
This is one of what I call extraordinary-ordinary people books. You know, everyday guy is just living his life and then, out of the blue, all these experts at espionage, crime, murder, and mayhem are suddenly after him and through pluck and luck, he somehow lives to fight another day. This is exactly that kind of book, but it avoids the usual requirement that we suspend all disbelief by providing him with some help in the form of an unlikely guardian angel and an extraordinary-extraordinary woman who is cleverer and more capable than he.
Luke Hamilton is our ordinary guy, a British Air Force pilot stationed in pre-war Paris after running into trouble with a woman in Afghanistan. He visits Guernica and is moved by the painting and falls into a strangely intrusive conversation with another man who is there. The man, Borodin, has been hired to kill him, but recognizes something in Luke that makes him hesitate. He soon decides to save Luke, though that will be difficult because there are several killers on his trail. After a fracas or two in Paris, now Luke has the French police on his trail, too.
Borodin sends him to safety, if safety is the fire after the frying pan. However, he does meet Pippi who is all kinds of competent and smarter than most, certainly quicker than Luke. Things move apace and now he not only has French Police, but some Nazi soldiers as well. So, let’s just add the British army and the Italians for good measure. Luke pretty much makes a big circle of Europe picking up new folks on his trail, leaving bodies (usually not of his doing) and learning more about himself than he ever suspected.
There is also a love story, the burgeoning romance between Luke and Pippi. It’s very much a fade-to-black affair, surprisingly chaste for a book full of so much murder and violence. It’s funny how much more squeamish people are about sex than violence. We have a nun beaten to death, some waterboarding, shootings galore, and nothing more sexual than a kiss before they wake up in the morning. Not that I am complaining, people trying to be inventive when writing about sex can sound ridiculous, but I just can’t help notice how much more comfortable we are with violence.
I spent the day in the library of PNCA today, a library filled with beautifully illustrated art books, but I was glued to Where Dead Men Meet. It is just one firing pan after another with frequent fires in between. It does stretch credulity to the snapping point, the success with which Luke and Pippi escape from more trained, skilled, and experienced agents of one sort or another, even with the occasional intervention of their guardian angel Borodin and his cherubim.
The mystery of Luke’s real identity is central to the story and I am eternally grateful he was not some lost Romanov. I confess my first reaction when I realized this was a secret identity story was a loud groan fearing that would be the story line. I am so glad it was much more inventive than that.
I liked Where Dead Men Meet. I liked the characters, though sometimes Luke needed a kick in the rear. Luckily, Pippi was there to give him those much needed kicks when he was ready to pack it all in. I like that they made a point of developing a plan and then trying to tear it apart to see where it could fail. I liked that they weren’t suddenly efficient killers and made mistakes. There are a few times the foreshadowing is a bit too revelatory. For example, when Borodin gives Pippi a heads up when they separate for the last time, I knew that there was another enemy in addition to the Croatian crime bosses. I appreciate, though, that when they went to Italy, they did not run to their hidden enemy to seek his help all unaware, avoiding the ultimate thriller cliche of the bad guy soliloquizing his entire plan before some miraculous intervention saves the day.
The writing is clear and direct with a strong narrative drive. Mills succeeds in creating a vivid sense of place, but this story is more about pace and action than mood. It is almost cinematic during the scenes of intense jeopardy, all the action is there in your mind’s eye. If you like thrillers with people who are confused and at sea, but competent and proactive. you will enjoy Where Dead Men Meet .
Where Dead Men Meet will be released on May 30th. I received an advance e-galley from the publisher through NetGalley.