By Mick Herron
Soho Crime, 2018
The gifted, if highly flawed, oddballs that make up Mick Herron’s superlative spy novels are back in London Rules, the fifth in the Slough House series (after 2017’s Spook Street), which began with Slow Horses in 2010. They are grade-A misfits who inhabit Slough House, the rundown, rickety shelter where disgraced spooks—“slow horses”—hole up to wreak havoc and, every so often, make eccentric order of the chaos that was their spy world and really, if the truth be faced, still is. In John le Carré’s Smiley’s People, Moscow Rules are a form of rigid, guarded tactics for operating in very dangerous circumstances. In Mick Herron’s satirical series, “London Rules might not be written down, but everyone knows rule one: cover your arse.”
The novel opens with a blood bath. Five uniformed soldiers arrive at a remote English town in a sand-colored jeep and casually massacre its inhabitants. Nobody is spared, not even the chickens, from the slaughter by a hail of automatic gunfire. It’s a scene worthy of Afghanistan or some other war zone but it happens in the Derbyshire village of Abbotsfield. This is just the first of several apparently random attacks coming one after the other: a bomb blows a raft of penguins to bits in a zoo enclosure called The Watering Hole, another bomb is found on a high speed train.
Back in London the slow horses plod on with their pointless work. Each has been banished from Regent’s Park, the center of MI5, the Service’s heart and moral high-ground, for a serious transgression in their past. Exiled to this satellite for demoted spies, forbidden to go out on operations, and assigned mind numbing tasks, it is the fervent hope of the powers that be that they will just resign, saving the expenses associated with routine dismissals.
This motley crew is led by Jackson Lamb, the obese, slovenly, surly, cantankerous, flatulent, greedy mess of a highly experienced, now-disgraced MI5 spy. He’s been called Falstaffian, his drinking habits are Churchillian and his constant malapropisms make for a lot of wicked fun. One thing’s for certain among his band of outcasts: you cross him at your peril, for they never forget that Lamb is quicker and more cunning than he looks. Number two is Catherine Standish, never a joe (OSS euphemism for a spy), she reluctantly toils in their midst as Lamb’s personal assistant. She keeps quitting, he keeps forgetting to process the paperwork. She’s an alcoholic who has not drunk anything for years but continually struggles to stay off the bottle. (Lamb definitely doesn’t help). She was the one who found her former boss, Charles Partner, the first Service Head, a true Cold War Warrior, in his bathroom: an apparent suicide. Partner’s suicide is a leitmotif in all the novels. And the real story behind it is a shocker that Herron ever so skillfully delivers at the end of London Rules. River Cartwright, who screws up a training exercise which managed to shut down King’s Cross for hours, has survived because his grandfather David is a world class legend among Britain’s spooks. ”He knows more secrets than the Queen’s had chicken dinners.” Nicknamed O.B. by River (for Old Bastard, not Old Boy) he’s descended into dementia, his knowledge melted into fiction. J.K. Coe is from Psch-Eval, has a bad case of PTSD. He is also is a murderer who gets away with it:
Luckily, Coe had done so at the fag-end of a series of events so painfully compromising to the intelligence services as a whole that—as Lamb had observed—it had put the “us” in “clusterfuck,” leaving Regent’s Park with little choice but to lay a huge carper over everything and sweep Slough house under it.
Shirley Dander is a recovering coke addict with anger management problems who keeps a stash in her pocket. Then there is Louisa Guy. She is considered relatively sane by her cohorts even though she is going slowly mad scrolling through library loan statistics, determining who had borrowed certain titles in the course of the last few years. The rationale: to uncover fledgling terrorists. As meaningless busywork it was, almost, unrivaled.
The most irritating of the slow horses is computer geek Roderick Ho, liked by nobody.
When Dander saves Ho from being run over in an amateurish hit attempt, Ho is so self-absorbed and delusional he doesn’t even realize he was in danger. As the team investigates, the hit on Ho gets connected to the Abbotsfield massacre, which gets connected to the new terrorist group bent on destabilizing England.
The large cast of characters is put together with precision and verbally skewered by one of the sharpest satirical eyes in the spy genre. The best new character is Molly Doran. She’s the keeper of the archives, the paper files in the Regent’s Park vaults, the assortment of databases the Service operated, which Molly calls the Beast. She’s a wheelchair-bound know-it-all who is privy to more secrets than almost anybody in the realm. She’s more than a nod to le Carré’s Connie Sachs, the eccentric alcoholic with an incredible memory and intellect who works in the research department of the Circus.
Once again it is the slow horses who are the unlikely heroes. As Herron brilliantly puts it: “It is success by cock-up, delivered to a cold, self-serving Establishment that is unconsciously and unscrupulously hell-bent on destroying whatever remnants of decency still cling to Britain today.” Heady stuff for a powerful thriller cleverly disguised as entertainment.
Irma Heldman is a veteran publishing executive and book reviewer with a penchant for mysteries. One of her favorite gigs was her magazine column “On the Docket” under the pseudonym O. L. Bailey.