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The Savage Garden: A Novelby Mark Mills
Synopses & Reviews
From the author of the acclaimed national bestseller Amagansett comes an even more remarkable novel set in the Tuscan hills: the story of two murders, four hundred years apart — and the ties that bind them together.
Adam Banting, a somewhat aimless young scholar at Cambridge University, is called to his professor's office one afternoon and assigned a special summer project: to write a scholarly monograph about a famous garden built in the 1500s. Dedicated to the memory of Signor Docci's dead wife, the garden is a mysterious world of statues, grottoes, meandering rills, and classical inscriptions. But during his three-week sojourn at the villa, Adam comes to suspect that clues to a murder are buried in the strange iconography of the garden: the long-dead Signor Docci most likely killed his wife and filled her memorial garden with pointers as to both the method and the motive of his crime.
As the mystery of the garden unfolds, Adam finds himself drawn into a parallel intrigue. Through his evolving relationship with the lady of the house — the ailing, seventy-something Signora Docci — he finds clues to yet another possible murder, this one much more recent. The signora's eldest son was shot by Nazi officers on the third floor of the villa, and her husband, now dead, insisted that the area be sealed and preserved forever. Like the garden, the third-floor rooms are frozen in time. Delving into his subject, Adam begins to suspect that his summer project might be a setup. Is he really just the naive student, stumbling upon clues, or is Signora Docci using him to discover for herself the true meaning of the villa's murderous past?
"Two murders committed 400 years apart form the core of British author Mills's outstanding second novel (after Amagansett, which won a CWA Dagger Award). In 1958, Cambridge undergraduate Adam Strickland, who's studying a curious Tuscan Renaissance garden for his art history thesis, is equally intrigued by both the garden of the Villa Docci estate and its elderly owner, Signora Francesca Docci. Built by the villa's first owner, Federico Docci, in 1577, the garden was intended as a memorial to his wife, Flora, who died when she was only 25. In the course of his research, Adam begins to sense that events, both past and present, are not as clear-cut as they appear. In particular, he discovers that there are several versions of the death of Signora Docci's oldest son, Emilio, who was shot by the villa's German occupiers at the end of WWII. Adam is hailed by all when he comes up with a novel theory explaining Flora's death in 1548, but when he begins to speculate on Emilio's demise, he finds himself in serious danger. This engrossing literary novel, like Amagansett, deserves to be a bestseller." Publishers Weekly (Starred Review) (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
"Mark Mills' second novel, 'The Savage Garden,' tells of a Cambridge student, Adam Strickland, who in 1958 journeys to the Villa Docci, near Florence, to write a scholarly paper on its celebrated 16th-century memorial garden. He hasn't been there long, sweltering in the Tuscan summer, when he becomes enmeshed not only in romance but also in two mysteries long buried in the past. In Mills' hands this... Washington Post Book Review (read the entire Washington Post review) becomes a grandly written literary thriller that I found alternately fascinating and frustrating. It isn't a novel for everyone, but if you love Italy and its landscapes, gardens, literature and art, all lavishly described, it might be one for you. Upon his arrival at the villa, Adam meets its mistress, Signora Docci, a 70-something aristocrat with many secrets. He also meets her surviving son, Maurizio, and is told that her other son, Emilio, was killed by the Germans 14 years earlier, during World War II. Whether that is truly how Emilio died is one of the questions that come to obsess the young man. The other, more distant mystery is embedded in the statues, fountains, groves and grotto of the garden itself, which was built by Federico Docci as a memorial to his young wife, who died in 1548. Adam has not been in the garden long before he decides there is 'something not quite right about the place.' Mills describes this haunted garden in loving detail. This, for example: 'Having laid out this new kingdom, Federico had then dedicated it to Flora, goddess of flowers, and populated it with the characters from ancient mythology over whom she held sway: Hyacinth, Narcissus and Adonis. All had died tragically, and all lived on in the flowers that burst from the earth where their blood had spilled — the same flowers that still enameled the ground in their respective areas of the garden every springtime.' In time, by studying the garden's statues and Latin inscriptions, and by deciphering clues hidden in Dante's 'Inferno,' Adam decides that the garden in fact commemorates a terrible crime four centuries old. The present-day mystery is more urgent. Did German soldiers kill Emilio, or did his brother kill him? Happily, as Adam struggles with these questions, he enters into a flirtation with Antonella, Signora Docci's lovely granddaughter. The romance is nicely sketched, as is Adam's roguish brother, Harry, who turns up to borrow money and then surprises us by being quite an interesting character. Signora Docci remains a charming enigma. Throughout, Mills' writing is filled with pleasant surprises. During a storm, 'The treetops swayed like drunken lovers on a dance floor.' A work of art is not a masterpiece, 'but it was distinctive, an unsettling blend of innocence and intensity — like the gaze of a child staring at you from the rear window of the car in front.' Mills also does an admirable job of suggesting the physical and cultural landscape of what is, after all, one of the most beautiful and civilized corners of this planet. With so much to admire, why do I call the novel frustrating? First, the opening sections move much too slowly. Each description of a statue or a landscape or a painting is lovely, but there are too many of them. If I hadn't been reviewing the book, I'm not sure I would have kept reading, and that would have been a pity, because in time the story becomes engrossing. My other objection is that much of Mills' plot is simply far-fetched. Adam and Harry make brief mention of Sherlock Holmes, which struck me as fitting: Too many connections in 'The Savage Garden' are, like those in the Holmes stories, more clever than plausible. For example, Adam looks at an old picture of two brothers, and on the basis of their earlobes deduces that they don't have the same father; then, on the basis of another old photograph he puzzles out who the mystery father is. That's pure Holmes, and it's too easy for as ambitious a novel as this. The ability to write elegant prose is like being blessed with a pretty face: It helps you get away with a lot. Many readers are going to ignore the holes in Mills' plot because his prose carries you along so smoothly you hardly notice them. People look for different things in novels. A friend tells me that she adored Lawrence Durrell's 'Alexandria Quartet' for its writing and didn't care if precious little happened in its four lush volumes. To each her own, but my focus tends to be on plot; fine writing is a treat, but it's the icing, not the cake. Still, on balance, 'The Savage Garden' is an impressive performance by a young British screenwriter whose first novel, 'Amagansett,' was much admired three years ago." Reviewed by Carolyn See, who can be reached at www.carolynsee.comTerry Pluto, a sports columnist for the Akron Beacon Journal and the author of 'The Curse of Rocky Colavito' and 'Dealing: The Rebuilding of the Cleveland Indians'Dennis Drabelle, who is a contributing editor of The Washington Post Book WorldPatrick Anderson, whose e-mail address is mondaythrillers(at symbol)aol.com, Washington Post Book World (Copyright 2006 Washington Post Book World Service/Washington Post Writers Group)
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"A murder puzzle wrapped around a literary deconstruction grounded in a perceptive study of seduction and survival. Sublime." Kirkus Reviews
"Mills follows his debut novel...with another deftly plotted and suspenseful tale full of entertaining characters and set in a marvelously sensual locale. Readers who enjoyed his first book will not be disappointed. Highly recommended." Library Journal
"This sort of jumping between historical and contemporary crimes has become commonplace...in highbrow literary thrillers, but Mills uses the technique effectively....
Set in the Tuscan hills, this new work by the bestselling author of Amagansett is the story of two murders, 400 years apart — and the ties that bind them.
Young Cambridge scholar Adam Banting is in Tuscany, assigned to write a scholarly monograph about the famous Docci garden—a mysterious world of statues, grottoes, meandering rills, and classical inscriptions. As his research deepens, Adam comes to suspect that buried in the gardens strange iconography is the key to uncovering a long-ago murder. But the ancient house holds its own secrets as well. And as Adam delves into his subject, he begins to suspect that he is being used to discover the true meaning of the villas murderous past.
About the Author
Mark Mills is a screenwriter whose first novel, Amagansett, was published in a dozen countries and received the British Crime Writers' Association John Creasey Memorial Dagger Award. A graduate of Cambridge University, he lives in Oxford with his wife and two children.
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