The Savage Garden by Mark Mills

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The Savage Garden by Mark Mills

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Category: Crime
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: Sue Magee
Reviewed by Sue Magee
Summary: A 400-year-old crime of passion and a suspicious death at the end of World War II stretch Adam Strickland's brain and his courage in this mystery which comes highly recommended by The Bookbag.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 400 Date: July 2007
Publisher: Harper
ISBN: 978-0007161935

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In 1958 undergraduate Adam Strickland went to study a garden in Tuscany. It was a Renaissance garden behind the Villa Docci and was stunningly beautiful, but with a four-hundred-year-old message for anyone who could decipher the clues. What looks to be an enchanting memorial garden to a wife who died young is actually a story of infidelity, cunning and murder. As Adam works to uncover the story he becomes aware that there's another mystery dating back to the end of the Second World War about an unexplained death in some dubious circumstances.

This isn't a book to rush. It's one to savour and enjoy, going back and rereading passages because they're good, because they're interesting. The writing is elegant and flawless. The clues to the garden's message lie in classical texts and I did wonder how they would be conveyed without using the heavy hand of superior scholarship, but Mills has a light touch even here and the clues flowed naturally and easily.

At one point I did think that the plot was a little slow, but on reflection it wasn't. The Villa Docci and the nearby village are claustrophobic, with everyone knowing everyone else's business. It's a mass of seething resentment and feuds with people prepared to wait for a very long time to extract vengeance. The dramatic tension builds slowly and steadily - sometimes because the confrontation you expect doesn't happen - but by the end of the book it's almost unbearable. If you feel that you have to work a little in the first part of the book, rest assured that you will be more than amply rewarded. Towards the end I couldn't turn the pages quickly enough. The denouement is impeccable and faultless - the sort that brings a smile to your face and leaves you nodding in satisfaction.

Villa Docci, post-war Italy and the heat of a Tuscan summer all play their part, but the real strength of the book lies in the characters. They're all wonderful, believable people with their own strengths and weaknesses. You root for Adam from the very first chapter, thrown over by his girlfriend for being boring when you sense that he's going to be anything but. In Italy I loved Signora Docci, frail and elderly, but with an indomitable spirit and a few secrets of her own to tell. There wasn't a single character that hadn't been perfectly thought out - even down to the 'bit players' such as Adam's parents, each with their own story to tell.

I was talking about the crime genre to a friend recently. She doesn't like it, failing to be moved by 'posh coppers chasing yet another serial killer'. I can sympathise with that view, but I think even she might be taken with this book. It's about a crime of passion which happened many years ago and a single death which happened at a time when death was commonplace. That it might all have happened exactly as it did is what makes the book so good.

I seem to be reading about gardens quite a lot recently. For a lighter holiday read you might like to try Prue Leith's The Gardener or for another mystery set in Italy we can recommend The Sonnet Lover by Carol Goodman, and we're absolutely certain you'll enjoy Stef Penney's The Tenderness of Wolves.

I'd like to thank the publishers for sending this book to The Bookbag.

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Buy The Savage Garden by Mark Mills at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy The Savage Garden by Mark Mills at


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