Joe Country: English espionage

joecountryBrilliant but baffling. If you’re new to the Slough House series then that’s your likely reaction to this, the sixth in the sequence of modern-day spook stories. Joe Country is not one of those dip-in, dip-out, ‘can be read as a standalone’ novels. Each book in the Jackson Lamb series is a chapter in an ongoing story, and starting in the middle will make no sense whatsoever.

The characters are lightly-drawn and hard to grasp, there’s a metric tonne of background to grapple with, and the shadow of an extremely sinister overall arc is only just starting to show itself. All that would mean nothing if you haven’t read the earlier books. So definitely don’t start here.

Likewise, if you’ve missed a couple of instalments then go back and fill in the gaps. You need to know who has survived and who has died; who’s been framed and who’s wrongly accused; which skeletons have come crawling out of MI5’s capacious cupboard; whose political star is in the ascendant, and who owes whom a sordid little debt. It also helps if you know what’s going on with that triple agent, and how deceptive and deadly Jackson Lamb can actually be.

Once you’ve got yourself up to date, let the fun begin. Author Mick Herron exquisitely exposes the sleazy side of the British establishment; landed gentry, politicians and civil servants alike. This book is so damn relevant that in a couple of years it may not make sense, but right now the acerbic references to Brexit, our current Prime Minister and her likely successor are snarkily on target. You’ll definitely laugh out loud but it’s kinda hard not to weep…

Herron usually showboats with at least one passage of superb stunt-writing – but not this time, which makes me wonder if Joe Country was written to a tighter deadline than its predecessors. His dialogue and description is as pithy as always; for instance, the relentless mockery of the IT geek who has zero self-awareness is wickedly enjoyable. Yet such is Herron’s skill that he sideswipes our expectations with bleak betrayal and bitter revelation when we least expect it – delivering his most poignant punches almost as an afterthought.

Joe Country works on many levels, then. There’s a self-contained story about a hapless whistleblower hiding out in the winter hills of rural Wales, being hunted by ruthless agents with only an off-duty member of the Slough House team to defend him. There’s caustic commentary on contemporary UK politics and social trends. There’s tonnes of tradecraft. There’s subtle character development which sees a couple of the regulars develop genuine credibility. And – as I mentioned earlier – there’s glimpses of a much bigger picture which threatens national security and many of the key players…

The next episode should be really interesting.

Reviewed by Rowena Hoseason
Joe Country by Mick Herron is available at Amazon

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