The Savage Garden, a novel of suspense, takes place in Italy in the late 1950’s. Adam Strickland, a student of art at Cambridge University, is asked by a professor to make a study of the memorial garden at the Villa Docci, an estate in Tuscany. There is a mystery about this garden that has never been thoroughly investigated, much less explained. Having just broken up with his girlfriend, the disconsolate, somewhat aimless young man is only too willing to undertake a project that will take him to another country.
Once in Italy, Adam settles in at a pensione and goes to Villa Docci to meet its current mistress. Signora Francesca Docci, getting on in years but still astute, attractive – and wily – greets him with warmth. He is soon dispatched to the memorial garden. The place casts its spell on him at once, but although he is beguiled, his intellect shifts into overdrive at once. What is the secret so artfully concealed in this otherworldly place?
All too soon, Adam finds himself enmeshed in not one but two mysteries: one, several hundred years old, centers on the garden, while the other concerns the much more recent death of Signora Docci’s son Emilio. This last occurred at the villa near the end of the Second World War, from whose ugly shadows Italy is still struggling to emerge at the time of this narrative.
This is a fast-paced, engrossing novel, but character development is not sacrificed for the sake of the plot, and the writing is very good. Mills throws healthy dollops of sex, romance, and danger into his engaging narrative and puts his obviously deep knowledge of Italian history and art to very effective use. Above all, The Savage Garden has a wonderful sense of place, evoking (yet again) in this reader a powerful desire to return to Italy.
I would place this novel, along with others such as Restless by William Boyd and The Warlord’s Son by Dan Fesperman, in one of my favorite fiction categories, Thrillers with Brains. And if you want more crime fiction with an Italian setting, try Donna Leon, Magdalen Nabb, or Michael Dibdin.
[Three of the works of art alluded to by Mark Mills in The Savage Garden: The Expulsion from the Garden of Eden by Masaccio, Venus of the little Grotto by Giambologna, scene of battle from the Arezzo frescoes by Piero Della Francesca]