John Le Carré walked this route through the Cold War's links with Britain's diminishing standing, walking George Smiley into the morass of well-loved men-who-have-bonded-as-spies and edgy women (from Lady Anne to Connie Sachs). Alan Furst's books make me afraid to visit Eastern Europe, since I worry that I'd sob from one town to the next. Charles McCarry binds the sweet tragedy of aging to the complications of loyalties. And Olen Steinauer proves that even a spy of integrity and unexpected courage is still going to get crushed by the Great Powers.
So why not start all over again with Mick Herron's marvelous "Slough House" trilogy, where the premise is unflinchingly grim from the start: Slough (pronounced "slow") House is a division of Britain's famous MI5 that holds the operatives who've made a mistake so severe that official forgiveness is impossible -- but it's better to shove them into a make-work, useless department than to try to fire them. Let them push paper and do Internet searches and drink their way into oblivion. And maybe, some day, quit on their own and lose their pensions.
With REAL TIGERS, the third in this series (the others were Slow Horses and Dead Lions -- notice a trend?), Herron pries open the collected lives of his not very merry gang of disastrous espionage failures, from River Cartwright (victim of a misplaced traffic jam of sorts) to Jackson Lamb (too smart to be trusted) to the desperately horny but very tech-savvy Roderick Ho. And Catherine Standish, whose past alcoholic idiocies have added up to repeated failures that locked her into Jackson Lamb's limping team of misfits.
Shockingly, Catherine finds herself kidnapped from the London streets. It seems pointless -- any information value she might have once had is long since gone -- and it's messy, since she knows one of her assailants, another former drunk named Sean. Catherine's sobriety isn't pretty or brave; nor is her reaction to being "taken" in a van, then photographed in bonds and a gag. And the question she's issued is disturbing: "Which of your colleagues would you trust with your life?"
Catherine is disturbed, perturbed, not particularly frightened, and curious about her own chances of survival:
When Jackson Lamb was send into exile in the reshuffle that followed, he'd taken her with him. And it was true, she knew, that Lamb would never leave a joe in the lurch -- having been one himself; having been left there himself, more than likely. So maybe she should have nominated Lamb as the colleague she'd trust with her life, except that there wasn't much she'd trust him with. The collateral damage didn't bear thinking about.What's actually going on? Those who've followed the series will catch the scent of sickening wicked betrayal in the air when Dame Ingrid, who ought to protect Slough House, strides into the action. (You can read this one "cold" without the other two books, even though it will be much more fun if you take them series in order. Fear not, we are talking espionage disaster here -- so go right ahead and read this one first, then ramble through the other two. Each one's a gem.) And although River Cartwright is the un-spy who races toward Catherine's rescue (the wrong way, of course), in the long run the heavy lifting comes down to Jackson Lamb himself: his plans, his negotiations, and his deft playing of each of his team members, with lust, addictions, failures, and all, within the political crisis they've all tumbled into. Prime Minister? Even higher and wider? Catastrophes begin to unfurl.
Herron's "imagining the whole thing" doesn't detract for a minute from the conviction that in a lot of departments of every government's espionage apparatus, the fallible flawed people create many of the issues, just as they do at Slough House. And as the plot shifts to a much wider field of betrayal and likely deaths, it also becomes utterly convincing.
But what is the stake, for the "whackjob files" being maneuvered, and Catherine's freedom? And will the "slow horses" of Jackson Lamb's pained little office commit their usual massive errors all over again? Or will loyalty -- and a clever sense of how to leverage pressure back to its origins -- preserve Slough House to fight another day?
Now that I've mentioned so many details of this third book, I think I might have to go back and read the entire series again. Let George Smiley wander off in his ever-damp raincoat. Next time I'm in London, it's Catherine Standish I'll be looking for.
Oh, Herron's website is rather a mess. But poking around on it will reveal items like this description of how he starts his next book in this series: "It’s like rocking up to a college reunion, with everyone behaving themselves at first, but loosening up after a few drinks. I wonder when the fighting will break out?"
A tip of the hat to Mick Herron for an unforgettable group of characters. And to Soho Crime, printing the edgy, the strange, the powerful, and the global, in today's essential crime fiction.