The Savage Garden

Publication date: July 2007 | UK Publisher: HarperCollins  |  US Publisher: Berkley

The Savage Garden was selected as a Richard and Judy Summer Read in 2007 and became a No.1 Bestseller.

Behind a villa in the heart of Tuscany lies a Renaissance garden of enchanting beauty. Its grottoes, pagan statues and classical inscriptions seem to have a secret life of their own – and a secret message, too, for those with eyes to read it. Young scholar Adam Strickland is just such a person.

Arriving in 1958, he finds the Docci family, their house and the unique garden as seductive as each other. But post-War Italy is still a strange, even dangerous place, and the Doccis have some dark skeletons hidden away which Adam finds himself compelled to investigate. Before this mysterious and beautiful summer ends, Adam will uncover two stories of love, revenge and murder, separated by 400 years… but is another tragedy about to be added to the villa’s cursed past?


Mesmerizing… A crime author capable of the kind of writing found at the bedside of Man Booker judges.


Mills juggles the mysteries of three periods, switching between centuries with a conjuror’s skill…the book is beautifully written, giving life to the figures in their Tuscan landscape.

Literary Review

Unputdownable… hugely atmospheric.

Daily Mirror

An intriguing puzzle, elegantly written…the atmosphere of an Italian summer and of the mysterious garden are beautifully captured.

Sunday Telegraph

Mills writes beautifully; leading us gently and atmospherically through the Tuscan Renaissance garden… an unusual, captivating novel that is a cut above the norm.


Entertaining… Mills weaves together two murder mysteries in his elegantly contrived plot.

Times Literary Supplement

A fine sense of period and place, a well-managed narrative, crisp prose and fascinating information… Mills is one to watch.


To be savoured…Mills weaves together an intriguing mixture of love, loss and divided loyalties.


An intriguing historical thriller which confirms him as a first-class and unusual crime writer.

Daily Mail

A beautifully penned, high-brow crime thriller.

City AM

A keen sense of loss and longing suffuses The Savage Garden… a romantic and gracefully executed literary puzzle. Mills creates an enchanting vision of wooded glades and grottoes, temples and reflecting pools… a tantalizing mystery.

New York Times Book Review

A sumptuous tale of multiple mysteries, family intrigues and hearty Continental flavour demonstrates Mills has earned a prime place at the crime fiction table.

Baltimore Sun


Publishers Weekly

In his first suspense novel, Amagansett, Mark Mills displayed a literary voice that was thoroughly embracing. The same is true in The Savage Garden.

New York Daily News

A bit of background

Bizarrely, The Savage Garden started out as a murder mystery set in late nineteenth century Dutch colonial Java. In fact, Signora Docci, the octogenarian matriarch of the finished book, featured in the original story as a thirteen year old girl dragged off to the Malay Archipelago by her father, a deeply religious Italian naturalist set on disproving the theories of Charles Darwin.

Several factors combined to make me abandon nineteenth century Java for an altogether different story set in 1950s Italy. It wasn’t an easy choice to change tack so completely; I had spent six months in the Bodleian Library in Oxford researching the original idea, and had even travelled to Java. This was when things began to go wrong.

I was woken on my first morning in Jakarta by the sound of a loud explosion. It turned out that Jemaah Islamiyah, a radical Islamist organization, had just tried to blow up the Australian Embassy. I found myself locked down in my hotel, and was strongly advised to abandon my plans to visit Sunda, the western province of the island, where my story was set. Sunda, it turned out, was a hotbed of anti-western fundamentalism.

Having travelled half way around the world, I ignored the advice, and aside from one awkward incident everything went fine. Nevertheless, I had lost valuable days, and I returned to England with the uneasy feeling that I’d failed to complete a proper reconnaissance of the place.

Then came the Boxing Day tsunami of 2004. The climax of my story was the destruction of the small coastal town of Anyer by a giant wave following the 1883 eruption of Krakatoa, a volcano located just off the western coast of Java. Given the terrible death toll of the 2004 tsunami, I felt very uncomfortable about using an identical natural disaster in the book. Somehow, it seemed exploitative, disrespectful, and yet the whole thrust of my plot was towards this cataclysmic ending.

I had written sixty or so pages of the book when I phoned my editors and told them I was abandoning it. Fortunately, another idea had been creeping up on me for a while. At that time, we were renting a cottage on an estate north of Oxford, where I would go to write. Rousham is home to one of the most beautiful gardens in the country – an Italianate masterpiece laid out by William Kent in the early eighteenth century. It’s a magical world of temples and statues, streams and waterfalls, strung out along a lazy bend in the river Cherwell. The garden’s symbolism and iconography are open to debate, and I was taken with idea that such a garden might hold the clues to an historical mystery, possibly a murder. It made sense to locate the garden and the story in Italy; William Kent had drawn his inspiration from his travels there, and I had lived in Italy for a number of years and was eager to write about the country.

Apart from a couple of key themes (and one of the characters) the only thing the second book shares with the first is the title. I left that unchanged.