Monday, February 16, 2015

Top British Espionage Fiction: Mick Herron, NOBODY WALKS

The classics in British espionage fiction are by John Le Carré and Graham Greene, and if you love the genre, I hope you've found Charles Cumming and Charles McCarry. I could go on with the authors whose spy novels brush against Britain, too, like Olen Steinhour. Such good books, to feed that hunger for complexity, political savvy, and long-term insight into our world!

And then there are the less known authors who'll surely climb to these heights over time. Of all the contenders at the moment, Mick Herron is one of my top picks. His two books in the Slough House series, Slow Horses and Dead Lions, gave me laughter, heartache, and insight, and I hoped Soho Crime would bring us more in US editions.

The start of NOBODY WALKS seemed like a new series -- working in a meat processing plant in France, rough ne-er-do-well Tom Bettany gets a cellphone message that his 26-year-old son Liam has fallen to his death, and because Bettany lives such a hard life, the message barely reaches him in time to let him get to the funeral in England. Detective Sergeant Welles, investigating the death (Liam was stoned on a balcony -- alone? or not?), actually gives Bettany a ride to the funeral service, where there's nobody he knows, and one lone name that he recognizes, that of his son's apparent girlfriend, who'd also left him a voicemail.

Slowly, Bettany's past flickers into focus, and it's violent and laden with secrets. Could his son's death be related? Hadn't Bettany walked away from his government-related career as well as his family, immersing himself in gory, physically demanding work in another country -- wasn't that enough?

But nobody walks away from that kind of career, it seems. And gradually I found connections between Bettany and the espionage setting of the Slough House series, in the same way that a Tana French book will lead back to the Dublin Murder Squad, or a Stuart Neville crime will relate to the Troubles and the resulting criminal syndicate -- there is a violence and brutality underneath the civilized English veneer, and it may add up to worse than the slaughterhouse that Bettany knew in France.

Soon Bettany's trudging along grimy, gritty urban streets and alleyways, his son's ashes toted with him, looking for someone to blame -- maybe the drug dealer who'd sold the weed to young Liam?
Bettany walked on, tote bag in hand.

Invisible, painless bullets struck him dead every step of the way.

He visited more pubs, asked more questions. Nobody was glad to see him. Even those who might have cared, who didn't take him for a cop but a parent tracking a runaway, wanted him gone. 
And some of those are willing to hurt him, even kill him, for asking such questions.

The path toward clarity involves professional gamers and game developers, the casual liaisons of the young, and slowly revealed, the cynical cruelty of a profession Bettany thought he'd left far behind him. Herron's narrative style is tightly paced, with every scene, every seeming digression, turning significant ... and what he puts forward about power in the secret rooms of British government is dark, dirty, and all too believable. Not many laughs in this one, except for the choked bitterness of discovery. Liam's death at the start of the book strongly suggests there can be no "happy ending" to Bettany's quest. And things can indeed get worse.

But there's an art to darkness and revelation, and Herron is a master of these. This book goes on my "read it again and again" shelf with Herron's others. I'll be watching for the next. Meanwhile, if you're collecting espionage with depth, suspense with meaning, a good story with a reason for telling it -- get a copy of NOBODY WALKS. Release date February 17, so grab those first printings while you can.


J.P. Choquette said...

Both sound really good, and of course, you did an excellent job with the reviews. "Nobody Walks" is being added to my TBR list. Love British mysteries!

Beth Kanell said...

Glad you spotted this one, J.P. -- let me know what you think when you've had a chance to read some Herron!