Any reader of John Le Carré already knows the term "Moscow Rules": the keep-safe guidelines for espionage on foreign turf, where every stranger can be ready to sabotage your effort or your life. In a brilliant an enteraining twist, Mick Herron provides "London Rules" -- the conventions of the dog-eat-dog tangle of British espionage agencies competing for government favor, funding, and job security along the Thames and in the adjacent terrain.
LONDON RULES opens (after a dramatic mass murder preface) with an artful discussion of the daylight's revelations in Slough House, home to failed domestic espionage agents who can't be fired -- but can be made supremely miserable and humiliated by repeated assignments to tasks involving phone bills, website listings, and such. In fact, the tiny pocket of underemployment would be an utter failure and disgrace, were it not for its leader, the bright but rather disgusting (verbally, in appearance, and through massive farting) Jackson Lamb. Because Lamb may have the Service's supreme screwballs. But when they get to Slough House, they become HIS screwballs, to torment and mock in conversation and duties ... and to align and operate under the radar when he so chooses, protected by his massive influence, connections, and, sigh, persistent blackmail.
[Lamb's office] is cramped and furtive, like a kennel, and its overpowering theme is neglect. Psychopaths are said to decorate their walls with crazy writing, the loops and whorls of their infinite equations an attempt at cracking the code their life is hostage to. Lamb prefers his walls to do their own talking, and they have cooperated to the extent that the cracks in their plasterwork, their mildew stains, have here and there conspired to produce something that might amount to an actual script ... a moving finger had write before deciding, contrary to the wisdom of the ages to rub out again.Such pretentious teasing prose is quickly balanced by a sequence of disasters and threats that forces Jackson Lamb to place his "agents" back into play, even as he mocks the chances that they might succeed.
But it's necessary, because as Lamb's rather unpleasant agent Shirley Dander -- on her 62nd drug-free day -- discovers, someone is trying to murder her fellow agent Roderick ("Roddy") Ho. And the grotesque linkages in Slough House mean if one agent's at risk of sudden death, so are they all.
Soon Lamb and his able (if a lot crazy) assistant Catherine Standish take Shirley's side. They even confront one of the superiors trying to shut them down, Emma Flyte, as Flyte argues about that opening mass murder and its sequelae:
"So let's say he's right. Even if the Park [the active security force] don't listen, tell them about it and you've covered your back."Lamb's right. The question is, with London Rules pushing the powerful to protect their own backsides and shove everyone else into the line of fire, how can the Slough House team -- the Slow Horses -- possibly get out of this, both alive and employed?
[Lamb responds] "Yeah, not really. Because if these guys are laying waste to the country using a script the Service wrote, there are few lengths the Park won't go to to cover it up. And anyone who knows about it will be in the firing line. Which includes you, if you'd lost count. Don't make the mistake of thinking you'll be safe when they start playing London Rules. Because you're not a suit, Flyte. You're a joe [agent]. And joes are expendable." ... Lamb shrugged. "I'm in no hurry to be elsewhere. But what I'm appealing to are your survival instincts."
Series readers already know how quickly Herron can tie these burned-out and substance-abusing agents into knots that are somehow also hilarious, just the way one of Lamb's farts would be if it took place in certain higher offices. LONDON RULES pushes the stakes and the twisted hilarity higher than ever,
Oh sure, you can plunge into LONDON RULES without reading the earlier books first -- think of yourself as stepping through Alice's mirror or down the rabbit hole, and roll with it. Then grab all four preceding titles (reviews here) and have yourself a explosive week of head-shaking, food-spitting laughter.
And somehow or other, Herron always pulls the plot lines back into place in time for a highly satisfying denoument. This time -- well, it's explosive in terms of what's ahead for the series. But if this is your first Slough House book, you'll have to watch really closely to see what the hidden hand is up to as the book reaches its finale.
Herron's books usually reach publication in the United Kingdom first, and Soho Crime (an imprint of Soho Press) brings them across the "pond." Thank goodness.
PS: Looking for more mystery reviews, from cozy to very dark? Browse the Kingdom Books mysteries review blog here.