Real Tigers: second rate spies save the day

realtigersThere’s no doubt about it: Mick Herron blows the bloody doors off with the opening chapters of Real Tigers. This is stand-out, showboat, top rank writing, honed close to perfection with all the skill and dedication of an artisan craftsman. Mind you, people who haven’t read the two earlier novels in the ‘Slough House’ trilogy will probably find it utterly impenetrable and frustrating as all hell. So if you’ve not already experienced ‘Slow Horses’ then go back and start there, not here.

If you don’t know the scenario – Slough House is the career cul-de-sac where MI5 sends its hopeless but unsackable agents to harmlessly fade to grey – and haven’t already met the characters – alcoholics, an IT geek with hopeless personal skills, disgraced field agents and the magnificent Jackson Lamb – then you’ve no hope of gaining any traction with them in this book.

All the background inter-agency politics, all Herron’s wonderfully indulgent tradecraft, operating procedures and agency slang; it’s all worth getting to know properly before you indulge yourself in the glorious experience that is the first quarter of Real Tigers.

After then, the style fades somewhat (just as well; Herron would be superhuman to have kept it up throughout), and by the final third the plot goes wildly implausible with a Bond-style shoot out to save the day / the country’s secrets / a kidnapped Slow Horse / Lamb’s career. But it’s possible to forgive the less likely events, which include the kind of bodycount that’d make Rambo proud, to enjoy Herron’s pointed political and social observations, his skilful character manipulation, and his sweetly understated but savagely cynical dialogue. One high point: a character who seems to share an awful lot of similarities with Boris Johnson suffers an especially entertaining skewering…

The sheer volume of gushing luvvie media hype which surrounded this book when it first came out nearly stopped me reading it, but I’m pleased I overcame that prejudice to complete the trilogy. Mick Herron is regularly compared to John Le Carré, probably because the Slough House series focuses on internal agency and political rivalries. This is all about in-fighting and back-stabbing. Homeland security comes a very distant second to personal ambition: sod the terrorists, Herron’s spies are far too busy out-manoeuvring each other to worry about external threats.

If anything, I think Herron has just about exhausted the dramatic potential in this scenario, where intelligence agents spend their entire lives conspiring against their own colleagues. I hope that when these characters return (‘Spook Street’ is the next in the series) then he unwraps a new plot which doesn’t involve one layer of MI5 scheming against the next. It’s been mighty fun thus far, but the premise is wearing thin.

8/10

Reviewed by Rowena Hoseason

Real Tigers by Mick Herron is available in all formats

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