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BOOKS: ‘The Information Officer’

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THE INFORMATION OFFICER

By Mark Mills

Random House, $25, 304 pages

REVIEWED BY MURIEL DOBBIN

In 1942, in the dark early years of World War II, the tiny Mediterranean island of Malta was battered by German bombers and living in dread of a Nazi invasion. The last thing it needed was a serial killer on the prowl. Especially since in between murders, he was operating as a German spy reporting on the desperate British efforts to defend Malta with a force of Spitfires far outmatched by the daily juggernaut of the Luftwaffe.

Mark Mills paints a grim backdrop, noting that "twice the tonnage of bombs dropped on London during the worst 12 months of the Blitz rained down on Malta during two months." It was, he observes, "an extraordinary statistic that conferred on their little island home the dubious honor of being the most bombed patch of earth on the planet."

Maltas gallantry received extravagant praise from Winston Churchill in the House of Commons and the George Cross from King George VI. The author observes that the beleaguered Maltese joked that they would be happy to swap such honors for a few more Spitfires or a shipload of sausages.

Mr. Mills skilfully combines grim historical reality with murder in this tautly gripping mystery. His characters are deftly drawn and highlight the drama of their setting. Max Chadwick is a British officer with the dubious duty of reporting the war news to the Maltese in a manner that suggests it isnt as bad as it is. He is also indulging in an illicit affair with a pilots wife that involves more lust than love, which makes the conventionally moral Max unhappy.

His problems get worse when he is handed evidence that the brutal killing of at least one young Maltese woman was committed by a British officer, but warned to avoid publicity because awareness of such a crimes could demolish the islanders stubborn loyalty to the war effort and the British on whom they relied for protection, although many Maltese were by then eager for independence.

Yet Max does not capture the readers imagination as does Elliott, the cold-eyed American intelligence agent who takes a sardonic view of the war and the world. He offers the young Englishman homespun advice about pompous superior officers, suggesting: "Dont let them get you down. Like my grandfather used to say 'Theres more horses asses in the world than there is horses. "

Ironically, Elliott and the killer are the two most intriguing characters in the book. There are passages in which the unknown murderer philosophizes about his life and how he has reached the point of deciding "control was the key, and the taking of a life because you wanted to was the quintessence of control." He is mildly surprised that the British were shrewd enough to suppress news of his crimes because of potential public repercussions, and he has no sense of loyalty.

"Loyalty was a notion beyond his grasp. He had offered his services (to the Germans) to prove a point to himself; that others were not so very different from him."

Max is a flailing figure, professionally and romantically, especially when he discovers he has impregnated his married mistress at a point when he realizes he is in love with another woman. The female characters are more predictable and stereotypical than their male counterparts - the social climbers, the sharp-tongued diplomatic wives, even the tough woman editor who almost becomes a victim.

None of them is as memorable as Elliott and the sadistic killer, and it is no surprise that ultimately they face off. In the end, Elliott is the key to the book. He is particularly effective when he is tweaking Maxs protestations of morality. When the Englishman accuses him of "hoarding" because of extra rations he has tucked away on the severely rationed little island, Elliott tells him coolly, "This is work. Im the sole representative of the United States government on the island, and sometimes I need to get things done."

And he does. While Max scrambles to find the killer, it is Elliott who not only gets the job done, but disposes of the murderer in a spectacular fashion. He expects Max to understand why he had to come close to disposing of him, too.

Mr. Mills stays ahead of his readers as the plot follows its complex course, and he scatters his clues, including one notable red herring. Most memorably, his historical research offers a reminder of an often-forgotten fragment of a war.

Muriel Dobbin is a former White House and national political reporter for McClatchy newspapers and the Baltimore Sun.

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