Imagine a spy who’s the absolute opposite of the understated, discreet George Smiley and you might come up with some as obnoxious as Jackson Lamb, the lynchpin of Mick Herron’s Slough House series. Lamb is a compelling creation: a character I actively dislike but whose presence on the page lifts every scene he sweats, belches and bullies his way through. Lamb and Smiley are at heart old-school spies of the English tradition. Le Carre’s man disguised his ruthless nature by being ultra-discreet and entirely disarming. Mick Herron’s spymaster baffles his opponents with the appearance of a blundering oaf, burying his devious intellect so deep you sometimes imagine he’s mislaid his own smarts.
Spook Street is the fourth Slough House (aka Slow Horses) novel, and it’s one of the best in this high-class, carefully crafted series. The stories sometimes (OK, almost every time) stretch credulity close to snapping point but Herron’s writing is just so polished and pointed that you forgive his dafter plots devices. Each book is a self-contained story but you will struggle to orient yourself with all the characters and the situation if you start with this one. For ultimate enjoyment, go back to Slow Horses and start there.
Spook Street is particularly poignant, dealing as it does with the decaying intellectual processes of a retired, previously senior MI5 agent. It’s wretched enough when anyone loses their faculties to the slow creep of dementia… but if the person concerned spent decades in the security service then the consequences could easily undermine state security. In the opening chapters, Herron once again gives us a tour de force demonstration of his literary prowess, scattering sinister implications amid the domestic chaos of cognitive decay. We don’t know if the old chap has simply lost the plot… or if the demons from his past really are out to get him. It’s wrenchingly effective, and affecting. And a brilliant way to get the plot rolling.
However, this quirky, wittily-written spy story does have its downsides. Several of the Slow Horses team are less than well-developed characters. The key players (Jackson Lamb, River Cartwright, Diana Taverner) are easily recognised, as is techno geek Roderick Ho who Herron skewers without mercy at every opportunity. The disgraced MI5 enforcer with a gambling addiction is another winner. But there’s a slew of other oddballs in the background who seem to be there to either make up the numbers or die horribly when the storyline makes the ultimate demand. Unlike the ensemble cast in Arne Dahl’s Swedish A-Team series – who all feel like fully realised people – too many of the minor characters at Slough House appear to be wearing a red shirt while waiting for the axe to fall. Two new bods are introduced in this book and neither made much of an impression, while longer-standing characters are casually discarded without much impact.
My other grumble with all of Herron’s espionage adventures is that surely, please, at some point the English intelligence agencies and even the Slow Horses must devote some energies not to political in-fighting and undermining their personal enemies, but to engaging the wider world. Setting Slough House against Russia’s SVR, Turkey’s MIT or Germany’s BND – now that would be intriguing…
Overall, however, the Slough House series rivals Le Carre’s Smiley sequence (I didn’t make the comparison in the opening chapter by accident). Spook Street is likely to be the best contemporary British spy story you’ll read this year.
Reviewed by Rowena Hoseason
Spook Street by Mick Herron is available in various formats
(although you might want to wait until the ebook price has dropped from the £9.99 is currently listed at. Spook Street is good. But it’s not THAT good)
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