The Secret Hours by Mick Herron

Reviewed by Patricia Simms-Reeve

Mick Herron has become synonymous with brilliant depictions of British bureaucracy at its most farcical, politicians egregiously self-interested and the ever looming presence of MI5, sometimes wielding its sway over ministers or turning its destructive eye on its own operatives.

The world he has created is dark, cynical, and alarming at times. His characters are vividly drawn and the dialogue witty, often satirical.

His ‘Slow Horses’ series of books has won him titles such as the finest of modern spy thriller writers. This era is very different from Le Carre’s Cold War world of George Smiley.

The Secret Hours is billed as being ‘stand-alone’ from Slough House and its ‘horses’ but there are connections to some of those characters which illumine their backgrounds, which is a fascinating bonus for devotees of the several Slough House novels. This however does not detract from the enjoyment of a superb thriller for readers encountering Herron’s  extraordinary talent for the first time.

With his ability to refrain from any dull writing, Herron begins this book with the sentence that a dead badger is the worst smell in the world. A gripping pursuit through the night landscape of Devon follows, and we learn that the quarry, Max, had been living in a ‘safe house’ there in the quiet English countryside.

The scene afterwards switches between 90s Berlin and The Park, the London headquarters of MI5. The Park instigates an investigation ‘Monochrome’ to discover presumed misdemeanors by its own intelligence service.  As an ironic ploy, this top secret file is found hidden under an officer’s fish cakes in his  supermarket trolley and he and a colleague convert Monochrome from a limply languishing pursuit to being very much alive.

With a clever twisting and turning narrative, the characters living the ‘spooks’ life in a  Berlin still tainted by the decades under the Stasi, emerge as being connected, as the Monochrome file eventually reveals, to the current MI5 in London.

The odour of a decaying badger is, we are told, utterly revolting. Many of the characters in this world of spooks are a charmless lot; most obviously his leading creation, Jackson Lamb, who features in the Berlin of the 90’s. This is prior to his being in charge of the Slow Horses, thirty years later. As their chief there, he directs a motley crew of failed or disgraced former spies.

Lamb disgusts all who have dealings with him. His social skills and personal hygiene are seriously lacking, but he nonetheless wins grudging respect. Whisky and nicotine poison his system but his mind remains razor sharp. He is both repulsive but memorable.

The wonderfully atmospheric lives of these characters have been adapted for television but as expected much is lost. The dramatic content is intact but the fine writing is absent, of course. This quality of The Secret Hours is perhaps the most enjoyable aspect of all. Be it the surrounding atmosphere, the individual quirks of a character, the weather, life in the Berlin of the 90’s, or the London that is throbbing with dark secrets and shadows, all are essential in creating not just an excellent spy thriller but a fine novel of any genre.

Readers who have yet to discover the works of Mick Herron, especially his spy thrillers, certainly have a treat in store.

The Secret Hours


by Mick Herron


ISBN 978 139980 055 6

$32.99; 400pp

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