Sunday, February 26, 2017

British Spies Who Break Your Heart, from Mick Herron, SPOOK STREET

Mick Herron has done it again -- written an espionage novel where the characters might as well be members of your own family. (Maybe they are, and Herron just changed the names.) It's the fourth in his Slough House series of British "spooks" who've made major mistakes in their careers and have ended up in a painfully humiliating backwater of spydom, headed by the unpleasant, unclean, and constantly flatulant Jackson Lamb.

And if SPOOK STREET were just a riff on this situation, the misery of being labeled a career failure with no way to regain a decent spying slot, or the black humor of a physically disgusting boss in a falling-down building, well, who'd want to read it?

But instead, it's a vivid and achingly sad (and also terrifyingly funny!) mingling of the once cream of the crop, still smart and savvy but isolated, with their humanity way out in front of them. There's Louisa Guy, expecting (with mixed feelings) a sexual come-on from one of the younger men in the group, River Cartwright; the midlife stylish Roderick Ho, a genius on a computer but a disaster at reading his colleagues; the new and apparently both crazy and dangerous colleague JK Coe, whose PTSD seems to live in his fingers, which keep fingering an invisible piano in an effort to drown out what he remembers. And more.

The thing is, they all care about each other. Well, maybe not Coe -- he's too new to matter much -- but all the others hiss and spit and in the long run would lay down their lives to save each other, as dry-drunk Catherine Standish did in an earlier book of the series, and River Cartwright has, too. Even Jackson Lamb himself somehow cares, if only to spite the other Secret Service teams: If you're one of his "joes," he won't let you drown. Much.

So in spite of their frequent mistakes and bad language, the washed-up spies of Slough House grabbed a bit of my heart long ago. In this fourth title, the office sniping and insults fall way short of the disaster that's taking place: River Cartwright's once-famous grandfather, who still know enough to sink the Secret Service (which is one reason River is at Slough House, not out on the street), has dementia. At what point will the mainstream spy network discover this fatal failing? Will someone try to take advantage of the elder Cartwright (known mostly as the O.B., which does not stand for Old Boy, but Old B--, well, you know)? Or will he be mercifully executed before he can spill his dangerous old secrets? That's River's problem in terms of his aging grandfather. A very big problem.
Louisa had said: Yeah, I wasn't actually suggesting they'd have him murdered, though I can see you've put some thought into that.

But how could he, his grandfather's grandson, not have done?

And what really worries me, River had wanted to tell her, is that he's always loved telling stories. Even now, visits meant sitting in the O.B.'s study, sharing a drink and hearing secrets. That these had grown confused, frequently petering out down lanes that led nowhere, didn't mean they were no longer secret, and the thought of the O.B. on his daily pilgrimage round the village -- butcher, baker, post office lady -- weaving for all the same webs he'd spun for River, had kept him awake two nights on the trot.
It turns out River's right to be concerned, and nearly too late, as Jackson Lamb soon finds himself identifying a former spy's body for the police ... but who has shot whom? And what does all of this have to do with River's missing mother, and his unknown father? Not to mention the terrorism that starts the plot spinning?

By the time everything is "sorted," we know a lot more about each of the Slough Horses, especially River, but also the inimitable Catherine Standish, and even the mysterious JK Coe.

I don't know how I'm going to wait an entire year for the next in this series, from Soho Crime.

Can you jump directly into SPOOK STREET without having read Slow Horses, Dead Lions, and Real Tigers first? Of course you can. Mick Herron is an amazing storyteller, and you'll be just fine.

Besides, your heart won't clench up nearly as hard that way -- because the more you get to know Mick Herron's desperate group of failed spies, the more you'll care about them. I do.

PS:  Looking for more mystery reviews, from cozy to very dark? Browse the Kingdom Books mysteries review blog here.

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