‘House of the Hanged’ by Mark Mills

‘House of the Hanged’ is mystery novel set in France in the mid 1930s, but tinged both with the colour of events that happened years before during the Russian Revolution and the espionage intrigue of the years leading up to the Second World War.

The protagonist, Tom Nash, is one of those former agents trying to distance himself from the bad things he did in the past at the Government’s bidding, but who is drawn reluctantly back into the fray, by unwelcome intrusions into his newly comfortable life.

In the process of saving himself he has to question old loyalties and to decide whom he can trust, as well as to reawaken the flinty eyed government agent within him.

For my taste, it was an enjoyable lightweight read; something I was happy to read on the Tube, and would recommend for a beach book.

It is the process of buying and reading the book has made me reflect on the marketing of books, in a way that I  hadn’t previously.

I bought my copy of the novel in WH Smith in Helensburgh, a shop which, in its various incarnations since I was at school and it was John Menzies, has always been a jumbled and disorganised vendor of newspapers, books, records and sundry bits and pieces.

On the day I visited, there were two separate book promotions available, indicated by different coloured stickers.  One offered ‘Buy 1, get 1 for £1’, the other ‘Buy 1, get 1 for half price’.  My initial browsing, of course ended up with me holding one book from one range, and one from the other – Micheal Connelly ‘The Reversal’ and ‘A Visit from the Goon Squad’ by Jennifer Egan.

Given that there was nothing else which particularly appealed in either category, I decided to go for the smaller downside risk and take my chances with the ‘1 for a £1’, and returned ‘A Visit from the Goon Squad’ for another day.  And so ‘House of the Hanged’ cost me a £1, and represents good value as that.

But why do Smith’s do that?  The ‘1 for £1’ books were either detective fiction or pink books with embossed covers and the word ‘shopping’ in the title; while the ‘1 for half price’ were what might be described as ‘contemporary fiction’.  Is it something to do with the deals with the publishers, or the decision making of the expected purchasers?  Who decides which books go into which category?

I’ve heard stories from a number of writers about their unhappiness at the cover designs for their books, and as I dedicated book shop browser I usually agree that the covers on novels don’t always do them any kind of favours.

I recall picking up ‘The Life of Pi’ by Jann Martel several times in shops and then putting it back after I read the cover.   When finally I read the book I enjoyed it a great deal, but could still make no connection between the book blurb and its contents.

It makes sense that the most complimentary extracts from reviews should be printed on the cover; sometimes though one can’t help but feel that all they do is create hostages to fortune.  ‘House of the Hanged’ suffers from this problem, as it raised my expectations to a level which the book didn’t remotely reach.  ‘A crime author capable of writing found at the bedside of Man Booker judges.’ according to the Independent, apparently.  Now I’ve copied it out, it’s quite an odd sentence; it might mean the judges have thrown it on the floor unread…..

It did lead me to expect quality writing; and I’m afraid I was disappointed.  Without that quote, however, I wouldn’t have mentioned the clunkiness of it, I’d just have told you that it’s a jolly good romp.

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