Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Total Opposite of John Le Carré: Mick Herron Delivers Gritty Espionage With Heart

Yes, I know, saying Mick Herron's British MI5 series that's now two books long -- the first was Slow Horses, reviewed here, and the second is this year's DEAD LIONS -- is "gritty espionage with heart" doesn't sound as though it's the opposite of John Le Carré. But I can't fit the rest of the description into the title bar: funny, clever, ironic, poignant, twisted, and populated by a crew of espionage "failures" whose ability to succeed seems almost accidental. Or, more to the point, they succeed as a by-product of their misplaced loyalty toward each other.

The denizens of "Slough House" -- by the way, "slough" is pronounced to rhyme with wow, leading to the nickname "slow horses" -- are disgraced MI5 spies who know they've been shunted out of the real effort as punishment for their mistakes. Tedious tasks like making lists and building Internet-style archives get assigned to them, in hopes they'll quit on their own and save management the cost of providing for their retirement. Slow Horses introduced them, and it's hard to say that there's a single main protagonist among them. But publisher Soho Crime is calling this the River Cartwright series, so River -- the only one of the team to actually get to the field in this go-round -- might as well be the center. Yet the other characters are at least as memorable, especially Catherine Standish, not-quite-recovered alcoholic, and Jackson Lamb, filling his top-floor shambles of an office with farts. (Now do you see why it's the opposite of Le Carré? I don't think his spies even "belch." Or use the "water closet.")

River has few illusions about the losers he's trapped with at Slough House. But he's already had some surprises in the Slow Horses and keeps them in mind in DEAD LIONS:
River studied [Catherine], an old-fashioned creature whose pale colouring spoke of an indoor life. Her clothes covered her wrist to ankle. She wore hats, for god's sake. He guessed she was fifty-ish, and until the business last year he hadn't paid her much attention; there was little in a wall-hugging woman her age to interest an uptight man of his. But when things had turned nasty she hadn't panicked. She'd even pointed a gun at Spider Webb -- as had River. This shared experience made them fellow-members of a select club.
But is this new awareness enough to get the Slough Horse crew working together? In fact, if the "real" MI5 finds out that the "Slow Horses" are tracking a potential sleeper cell of former Russians n Britain, they won't be allowed to work at all. Who could expect any success?

Well, Jackson Lamb expects it. So, oddly enough, does River, even if he's no longer expert at dealing with things that go right.

From the inside-the-group extortionate moments, to the dangers of messing around behind official channels, Herron sets up a dry and wry chuckle every few pages. And sure, farts are juvenile, but Jackson Lamb may, after all, be using them effectively.

For a book that opens with a cat, ends with a mouse, and serves up what Spider Webb most deserves, this is also a weirdly realistic espionage romp. I'd read another Mick Herron in this series any time.  I'm hoping they'll keep on coming. This one already made a nomination list for the 2013 Golden Dagger ... So, while I wait for the next in the series, I plan to check out Herron's other work, the Sarah Tucker/Zoë Boehm books. But I suspect they won't have the same bittersweet humor and tenderness of Slow Horses and Dead Lions ... hmm, I think Herron's approach has me hooked.

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