Published in the Sunday Times
Mick Herron, John Murray, R295
One of the authors I’m most looking forward to meeting at the Franschhoek Literary Festival next week is Mick Herron. The British writer has been quietly turning out a series of spy novels that have built something of a cult following. With London Rules, his fifth, it looks like he’s reached the tipping point onto the mainstream radar.
The plain cover of the book obscures a rare combination of wit, plot, affecting writing and vivid characterisation. It is savagely funny but serious, cynical and sanguine and whippingly plotted, veering from small human vignettes to huge public events.
Jackson Lamb is the axis of the series, a great greedy gaseous lunk who lives on Chinese takeaways and tumblers of Scotch. He’s a washed up Cold War operative who has been shut out of MI5 and put in charge of a band of disgraced spies, the so-called “slow horses”. They are stabled in a decaying building called Slough House where they eke out their days sifting through statistics and drinking weak tea.
There’s Catherine Standish, a recovering alcoholic, who Lamb teases by pouring her drinks; River Cartwright, scion of a legendary MI5 family who screwed up spectacularly; Shirley Dander is a cokehead with anger problems; Louisa Guy is paralysed by grief for her dead partner; and JK Coe is a psychologist with post-traumatic stress disorder, who hides under a hoodie with buds in his ears. And then there is the deliciously awful Roddy Ho, genius hacker and delusional narcissist.
When a terrorist cell erupts into a string of attacks, evidence points to Ho having unwittingly passed information to his girlfriend. And so the slow horses are dragged reluctantly into the action, because the first of the London Rules, as everybody knows, is Cover Your Arse.
Herron presents a sharply contemporary view of the UK that at times borders on libel: the populist Brexiteer politician (and secret cross-dresser) Dennis Gimball and his harpy columnist wife, Dodie; the Muslim politician Zafar Jaffrey, in the running to be mayor of the West Midlands, who has some worrying cohorts, and a vain and weak prime minister concerned only with his image.
As the terrorists strike again and again, the intelligence services get help – almost by accident – from the farcically inept Slough Housers.
Their bickering is blistering but it’s Lamb who gets the best lines. He asks Louisa for an educated guess; when she replies he barks, “I said educated. That guess left school at 15 for a job at Asda.”
Lamb turns to Coe: “You’re the one who gets panic attacks, right? Behind you! Just kidding.” He compares ethical behaviour to “a vajazzle on a nun. Pretty to picture, but who really benefits?”
Padding through the action, and lifting the book to another plane is some arresting description of the hours of the day passing.
“In some parts of the world dawn arrives with rosy fingers, to smooth away the creases left by night. But on Aldersgate Street … it comes wearing safe-cracker’s gloves, so as not to leave prints on windowsills and doorknobs; it squints through keyholes, sizes up locks, and generally cases the joint ahead of approaching day.”
Herron has, of course, been compared to John le Carré and Graham Greene but he is entirely, subversively, unique. @michelemagwood