House of the Hanged, the last Mark Mills novel I read, was set in the Riviera, between the wars, which made a stunning setting for a very exciting plot. The Savage Garden takes an equally charming landscape, in this case a country estate on the outskirts of Florence in the 1950s, and weaves it into an enthralling mystery story based on a garden.
Adam Banting, a young Cambridge scholar is sent to stay at the home of frail Francesca Docci, an old friend of his art history professor, to write his thesis around the design of her garden. This was built in memory of the beautiful Flora Docci, mistress of the estate four hundred years before. Her untimely death as a young woman supposedly propelled her husband into such grief that he later commissioned the garden in her honour, but as Adam soon realises, Signor Docci left clues that point to murder.
Ever since, the Docci family has been plagued by bad luck and, dare one say it, evil. As recently as World War Two, Francesca's son Emilio was shot dead by the German soldiers who had commandeered the villa. The death was completely unnecessary, as the soldiers were about to leave before the advancing Allied Forces drove them out. But was this death as straightforward as it seems?
Adam is a clever chap, he's a Cambridge scholar after all, and fired by the success he has in deciphering the mystery of the garden, he soon turns his mind towards an alternative reason for Emilio's death and his suspicions lie far closer to home. The suspense begins to creep up the scale a notch or two and it seems sooner or later, Adam's investigations will to lead to danger.
This is a classic mystery story, peopled with characters glamorous enough to match the scenery. The Doccis are all stunningly good looking, and Adam soon takes a shine to Antonella, Francesca's granddaughter who has a dangerous reputation for breaking hearts. Francesca herself is a grand old lady with an iron will and lots of interesting stories, and while Adam's artist brother, Harry, provides useful assistance in the solving of the garden puzzle, his outgoing personality and knack for getting into scrapes with women add a lot of colour to the novel.
There's also the attractive Signora Fanelli, the innkeeper who reminds Adam of a wiry Gina Lollobrigida, and her rustic acquaintance, Fausto, who loves to talk politics and has an ex-partisan army background. The settings are also lovingly described, from Fausto's charming farm to the villa in all its shabbily-genteel glory. The garden itself, with its classical art, grottoes and secret corners is a masterful work of invention and the mystery its clues eventually display a clever piece of artifice.
Reading The Savage Garden is a bit like taking in a sumptuously beautiful movie - are all novels set in Italy like this? Mills has a knack for visual description that manages not to slow down the plot. Adam and his brother have many lively discussions, and if you have an interest in art history, Dante's Inferno, or classical mythology, this is a definite bonus.
If I must choose between the two, I probably enjoyed House of the Hanged a little more than this novel, because there is something callow about Adam that can be a bit annoying at times, which as it turns out, is necessary for the plot. Either book will give you an enjoyable distraction, this is definitely an author with a talent for transporting you to another time and place.