As with his previous ‘Slough House’ spook stories, Mick Herron launches London Rules with a simply gob-smacking opening chapter. You think you understand exactly what’s happening – just another terrorist atrocity among the daily diet of disaster – and then he pulls the rug right out from under with a single didn’t-see-that-coming sentence. It’s absurdly accomplished, and sets the tone for the fifth of these contemporary political commentaries.
If you haven’t met the Slow Horses before then London Rules will make little or no sense at all. Best to go back to the first in the series, to understand the dire circumstances of these second-rate spies. Each of the Slow Horses is damaged goods: alcoholic, inadequate, untrustworthy, addicted, impulsive or just plain incompetent. They’ve been buried in make-work in a scruffy sidestreet office in Central London, in theory kept well away from the important work of state security. Yet somehow they blunder their way into the most sensitive situations, and only the brilliant machinations of their unlovely leader – Jackson Lamb, a proper old-school spy – can save their bacon and prevent a national tragedy.
The plot is pretty much an excuse for some savage satire of the political classes. This time, Herron takes a determined poke at a Brexiteer who looks a lot like Nigel Farage; and a darling of the metropolitan elite, a Muslim candidate for mayor of the West Midlands. The department heads at MI5 spend most of their time in-fighting and undermining each other (thus leaving room for Jackson Lamb to manoeuvre), while the Slow Horses themselves are so remarkably disconnected from reality that one of them doesn’t even notice when someone tries to kill him.
It is terribly, terribly clever; a damning portrait of self-interest and political ambition. The action veers into slapstick at times yet Herron just about stops it becoming outright comedy. For every eye-rolling observation or absurdity, there’s just enough bleak reality to leave a bitter aftertaste.
If anything, Herron may be too successful – I struggled to relate to any of the key characters. Jackson Lamb is an astounding creation but it’s hard to find any sympathy for him, while the Horses themselves increasingly resemble cannon fodder. The story is superbly told – and it’s thoroughly entertaining to be in such witty company for a while – but these spy stories don’t have the gravitas or impact of Le Carre or Len Deighton. They’re like a grande latte: gorgeous to behold but essentially empty.
Reviewed by Rowena Hoseason
London Rules by Mick Herron is available in various formats
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