Spook Street: The most impressive new work in spy fiction
Mick Herron possesses that intangible gift given to all great writers, the ability to persuade the reader that he or she alone is privy to an intimate conversation
Mick Herron’s Jackson Lamb novels are deliciously irreverent throwbacks
Welcome to Slough House, “the administrative oubliette of the intelligence service,” where the “slow horses” – aka those British spies who are damaged, broken or simply useless – are put out to grass. Slough House provides the hub for Mick Herron’s Jackson Lamb spy novels, of which Spook Street is the fourth, a series that is by some distance the most impressive new body of work in spy fiction.
The novel opens at London’s Westacres shopping centre, where a bomb explodes and “something like the sun bloomed in all the wrong places”. Meanwhile, David Cartwright, a legendary Cold War spymaster and the grandfather of slow horse River Cartwright, is targeted for assassination. When River goes AWOL in France to investigate why the senile David was targeted, Slough House commander Jackson Lamb finds himself embroiled in a plot rooted in a post-glasnost scheme to breed the ultimate “sleeper” – the fanatical terrorist who believes he is working for the other side.
In synopsis it sounds like a typically modern spy novel, with its technological horrors and war-on-terror paranoia, but the Jackson Lamb novels are deliciously irreverent throwbacks. The tone is set by Herron’s characterisation of Jackson Lamb, a belching, farting, swearing sloth of a man who favours low cunning over high-minded principles.
Herron, steeped in the genre, enjoys poking fun at his literary antecedents. “Bond never had this trouble,” River Cartwright observes when he finds himself lost in France and struggling to communicate with a waitress. “Bond, though, would have been talking to a waitress 20 years younger, with inviting cleavage.” There’s also a neat nod to John le Carré, when Louise Guy, another slow horse, notes that a Slough House operation “was like a circus would be if circuses involved fewer clowns”.
A lesser writer might baulk at invoking le Carré, for fear of inviting odious comparisons, but Mick Herron is fully entitled to his indulgence (which extends to inventing his own vocabulary, as did le Carré: the novel is thronged with “weasels”, “stoats”, “slow horses”, and “vampires”). He is superb at evoking the le Carré-esque air of ennui, cynicism and self-loathing which permeates an intelligence service on its uppers, but which remains – the alternative being too awful to contemplate – duty bound to keep calm and carry on. Even so, the reader steeped in spy fiction may discover that Herron’s beautifully detailed characters more closely resemble the grubby, penny-pinching creations of Len Deighton, those put-upon civil servants charged with defending the realm despite a complete absence of the noble impulse.
Either way, Spook Street is an absorbing tale peppered with fascinatingly flawed (and in some cases plain awful) characters, while the downbeat tone, and the paralysing self-doubt that afflicts many of the protagonists is entirely apt for our turbulent times. Herron has a flair for the incongruously unsettling: in the midst of some office banter, during which two characters practise enhanced interrogation techniques, one of them declares that, “Blowing up forty-two kids in a shopping centre is murder. Waterboarding a suspected terrorist to death, that’s housekeeping.”
That said, Herron also leavens the mood with flashes of mordant humour (“The Dogs sniffed out all manner of heresies, from the sale of secrets to injudicious sexual encounters: the honeytrap was older than chess, but stupidity was even older.”), while the hilariously repellent Jackson Lamb – the anti-Smiley – is a constant source of politically incorrect one-liners.
Most importantly, Mick Herron possesses that intangible gift given to all great writers, the ability to persuade the reader that he or she alone is privy to an intimate conversation. Here Herron draws his readers so fully into the world of Slough House that the incautious might find themselves slipping between the pages and transformed from reader to spook. Which wouldn’t be entirely surprising; as Jackson Lamb points out, “Spooks love their stories: it’s why they’re spooks.”
Declan Burke is the editor of Trouble is Our Business: New Stories by Irish Crime Writers (New Island)