Reviewed by Ian Lipke
Many of us look back with affection to the days when Smiley and his group of undercover operatives guaranteed we could sleep soundly in unconscious acceptance that the Cold War villains were no longer a threat. The KGB and the Stasi were the epitome of evil, answerable to their governments, but nothing for us to worry about. John Le Carré ruled in the bookshops and we were the contented souls who read with avid eagerness everything he wrote.
Le Carré has gone; there is a Smiley no longer. But the spirit of Le Carré has never completely faded. It has received a boost in the form of a little known writer called Mick Herron, whose novel Spook Street has become “the finest new crime series this millennium” (Mail on Sunday). And what a thrill it is to again sniff-out “the stoats” — the evil ones that retired agent David Cartwright knew would one day be on his trail.
And so the story moves on from a slow start designed to put in our heads the identities of the no-hopers of the espionage world who inhabit Slough Street. In a smooth transition told at an ever-quickening pace, the retired spy Cartwright, “the Old Bastard”, surprises all when he accounts for the spy sent to liquidate him. There are familial relationships centred on a mysterious house in France, recently gutted by fire. There are prominent characters that are almost anti-heroes in this delightful but murderous romp through the suburbs and CBD of London. Guarding his little clutch of dimwits (but not very well) is Jackson Lamb, the liquid-tongued, flamboyant leader of the Slough House bunch.
It would be grossly unfair to reveal any more of the plot. It is intricately developed but pleasant to read, supported most handsomely by a remarkable series of characters, each different from the next, each memorable in its own right. Herron has an arsenal at his disposal: a clever revelatory quip that opens an insight into a character’s thoughts, a statement that turns out to be the very reverse of true. For example, River talks of his grandfather as “It’s like the light gets dimmer” (44). Events show that the OB’s mind is as sharp on occasion as that of any member of the team.
Dialogue is snappy and has a developmental function, propelling the story and revealing the characters. There are surprises at every turn of the page. On page 118 Lamb reveals that he had deliberately misidentified a dead body because his man “is now a joe in the field. And you don’t blow a joe’s cover.” There is the strange, anti-social J.K. Coe who, apparently divorced from the world around him shows himself to be a very dangerous man when stirred into life. The shifty Roderick Ho, who is convinced that he is Lamb’s Number Two, misses the alternative significance that Lamb places on the title.
The work is not perfect. We’ve moved past finding someone farting and judging the result humorous. Perhaps we’re being told something about the character from whom an ill wind blows. If so, I’ve missed it. This sort of humour is ill-placed amongst the razor tongues of so many of the characters. Even so, rarely does buffoonery take up much space.
For me, this book ticks most of the boxes. It is cerebral fare than never patronises, and if some of the events don’t quite jell, if a character suddenly breaks ranks and acts in an unlikely fashion, who is going to care in a book where the characters excel in verbal sparring and the story is driven by the poet-novelist’s slow, dry and sly humour. This is a book where the satire can be biting one minute and the situations hilariously funny in the next. John Le Carré has not returned but he has sent his first lieutenant to provide us with a marvellous read.
By Mick Herron