John le Carre brought a chilliness to espionage fiction; George Smiley tiptoed around London, his beige timidity disguising devastating spywork. Mick Herron brings the heat, his Jackson Lamb the czar of Slough House and the miscreants therein, who are hanging on by their fingernails to membership of the British Intelligence Agency. Lamb is to Smiley as Donald Trump is to Jimmy Carter, if Trump’s unpredictability and freewheeling speech were matched by potent measures of intellect and shrewdness.
By the fourth installment in Herron’s Lamb series, bodies have piled up and debts have been accrued, repaid, and racked up anew. Lamb’s “slow horses” get no respite in a world where children can be radicalized with a Skype connection, and Spook Street opens with a cataclysm: an explosion at a London shopping mall that ends more than three dozen young lives.
The Service gets to work on the atrocity under Claude Whelan, lately appointed First Desk of Regent’s Park thanks to the general view of him as a good-old-boy-safe-pair with the sound sense to have followed the approved upward route. Recurring character Diana Taverner (“Lady Di” out of her earshot), passed over for the role, adopts a supportive, tongue-biting mien with Whelan but moves her share of the chess pieces. Whelan’s elevation was abrupt and the shadow of former First Desk Dame Ingrid Tearney is long, facts which make him self-conscious.
If Lamb has endured a similar sensation in his life it’s gone unrecorded, and when a body, dead by gunshot wound, is found in the home of former senior Service agent David Cartwright (fondly: “O.B.”, as in “Old Bastard”), the slow horses of Slough House take a minute to reach the boss’ speed. The grandfather of River Cartwright, one of their number, David “had seen the Service through choppy waters: never his own hand on the tiller, but a light grip on the elbow of whoever was steering. It was he who’d picked the stars by which the service read its maps.”
Now he’s in the fug of advanced dementia, and River worries about “the possibility, the breath of an ancient rumour, that Regent’s Park might have a habit of lowering the curtain over its former glories” – that is, taking out daft old spooks before they can spill state secrets to the postman. It’s a theory lent weight by the bathroom corpse’s likeness to River, who sets off for France to find out more.
The storytelling is an immersive high pleasure, the slickness of Herron’s plotting, which entwines the public tragedy with the more intimate primary plot, unsurpassed. Slough House might be “where you ended up when all the bright avenues were closed to you”, and inhabitants of the building are at an elevated risk of violent death, but every character is a gem, and Lamb is as bewitching a figure as you’ll find anywhere in fiction, his leadership, if not the stuff of TED Talks, the right kind for high crimes and treason.
Herron doesn’t just reject cliché; he tilts language, injects it with wryness and perspicacity, makes it fresh. Lamb breaks news to a former colleague “the way he broke everything else: with a certain grim joy at watching it shatter.” “Gallimaufry” and “chuck” (as in throw) can manifest in the same paragraph and be perfectly copacetic.
Spook Street isn’t your 80s spy novel, but it plumbs the oily depths of the Cold War and traces the bony-fingered reach of its bureaucracy all the way to May’s Britain. There is a thin line between family and fanaticism in this story, which is all the more unsettling for its plausibility and would make a terrific film if there were a way to preserve every fleck of Herron’s exuberant wordplay.
Every week Stephanie reviews the Book of the Week.
As the Coast book reviewer, Stephanie Jones shares her thoughts each week on the latest releases.
Stephanie has a BA (Hons) in history and English literature, and a background in journalism, magazine publishing, public relations and corporate and consumer communications.
Stephanie is a contributor to the New Zealand Book Council’s ‘Talking Books’ podcast series (listen here), and a member of the 2016 Ngaio Marsh Award judging panel. She can be found on Twitter @ParsingThePage.