By Mick Herron
Soho Crime, 2019
Joe Country, Mick Herron’s sixth Slough House novel (after 2018’s London Rules), offers a sophisticated highly skeptical look at espionage in the Brexit age. “The Cold War didn’t really end,” he writes, “it just hid behind closed doors like Trump in a tantrum”.
Joe is OSS euphemism for a spy. But if “Joe Country” is where spies go to die, Slough House is where washed-up MI5 spies, or “slow horses,” go to lick the wounds of their failed careers. It’s the “administrative oubliette” of the Intelligence Service. The obese, slovenly, surly, cantankerous overlord to the Service’s washouts is Jackson Lamb. To a person they know that they underestimate him at their peril. They never forget that Lamb is quicker and more cunning than he looks:
He’d deal with the devil if circumstances required. Whether the devil would shake hands with Lamb was a different question. Even Satan has standards.
The matter on Lamb’s radar at the moment is Louisa Guy, one of his motley crew members who is in pursuit of a teenage boy in the Welsh countryside. This is at the request of the boy’s mother Clare, who is the widow of Min Harper, Louisa’s former colleague and her lover. The latter a relationship that Clare makes uncomfortably clear she is well aware of. The boy, 17-year-old Lucas, has not been returning his mother’s calls and Louisa has a hunch that the boy might be in real trouble. On this Lamb agrees. His gut reaction is that Louisa’s self-assigned mission will ultimately require more slow horses if she is to make it back to London alive.
What follows is quintessential Mick Herron. Seemingly disparate plot points, fueled by the interactions of his singular band of misfits, are connected like a vast and substantial spider’s web revealing that “old treacheries cast long shadows.”
Early on, before Louisa goes after Lucas, there is the funeral of David Cartwright. He’s been nicknamed O.B. by his grandson River (for Old Bastard, not Old Boy). River is at Slough having messed up a training exercise bigtime. Because Grandpa was a world class legend among Britain’s clandestine spy community, River was rescued from total oblivion. (Although the current occupants of Slough might not consider it a place synonymous with “rescue.”) Now River watches as the coffin is lowered into the ground, unaware that his father, Frank Harkness, is lurking in the shadows of the gravestones and not to pay his last respects. As Lamb will be the first to tell you, his appearance anywhere wreaks unimaginable havoc. As the coffin goes down River, unaware of Frank, reflects:
There was a good crowd, thirty or more … among them some who had figured in the O.B.’s tales; stories of labyrinthine deviousness; of actions carried out to convince others that certain knowledge was in our possession, or not in our possession; that certain facts held sway, or never had. A wilderness of mirrors, the land of spooks. Nothing you saw meant what it seemed, apart from those times when it did. Telling the two apart was the tricky bit. Knowing which was real, which the reflection. Ashes to ashes.
When River does become aware of his father, he causes a scene at the cemetery worthy of the Marx Brothers at their best. Herron’s irreverent approach to the spook game leaves no one, whatever their rank, unscathed. He recognizes that people – especially those in high places and tasked with important matters of national security – can be ill-suited to their job, incompetent or just unfortunate. No one skewers like Herron. Here’s his take on the current Prime Minister:
The PM’s stamp of approval hardly comes with a lifetime guarantee. It’s no secret she wasn’t so much made leader as handed a janitor’s uniform. Once Brexit’s been finalised, and her job looks less like an excrement baguette, someone more competent will step into her breeches.
The usual suspects and some worthy newcomers keep the suspense at breakneck speed. Herron turns blackmail, treachery, and spy vs. spy into a deadly game with some shocking losses. When Louisa finds traceable internet connections from Lucas’ Fitbit, the trail leads to an unforgettably fiery scene in freezing Wales.
True to form, the finale will take your breath away. With apologies to Mr. Eliot, it ends with a whimper not a bang. A highly effective whimper. Mr. Herron is as mischievous as he is mesmerizing. Joe Country secures his place as one of the world’s top spy novelists.
—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.