Slow Horses and Whitehall Masters
Mick Herron’s superb thriller is set in the world of broken-down MI5 operatives Rule Number One is ‘cover your arse’
Jane Harper’s debut novel, ‘The Dry’ became a best-seller and her follow-up, ‘Force of Nature’, a thoughtful, moving, troubling novel, is if anything better than its predecessor
Not least among the diverse pleasures of a crime series is its ability to chronicle contemporary events with vivid novelistic immediacy. As readers, we feel we are being rushed behind the headlines and given an enhanced perspective on what we think we know, especially when, as in the case of London Rules (John Murray, £14.99), Mick Herron’s superb new Jackson Lamb thriller set among the broken-down operatives – the “Slow Horses” – of MI5, what we think we know is not a great deal.
So when Herron has the beleaguered head of MI5, Claude Whelan, reflect that “one of the unforeseen consequences of Brexit . . . was that it had elevated to positions of undue prominence any number of nasty little toerags”, our unexpected identification with a spymaster feels like an intimate treat. The specific toerag Whelan has in mind is Dennis Gimball MP, whose wife is a tabloid columnist with delusions of grandeur. (“Like other newspaper columnists, like other politicians, they genuinely thought themselves beloved.”). And if they remind you of anyone, you’re almost certainly correct. Herron has a lively satirist’s eye and a comic sensibility that, in full flow, evokes early Tom Sharpe; these extravagant gifts are housed within a rock-solid plot involving a terrorist gang of unexpected origin acting out the moves of an MI5 playbook. The spectacular action set-pieces are expertly handled but they never overwhelm the gleeful cynicism of Herron’s true subject, which Slow Horses and Whitehall Masters alike understand intuitively as London Rule One: Cover your arse.
For more than 30 years, from their perch in Iberia Parish, Louisiana, James Lee Burke’s Dave Robicheaux books have kept a close watch on New Orleans and the South; when Hurricane Katrina hit, his 2007 novel, The Tin-Roof Blowdown, was one of the more powerful literary responses. To say that his readers expected no less testifies to the esteem in which this grand master of the genre is held. Robicheaux (Orion, £19.99) is the 21st in the series, and if it has a valedictory feel, perhaps that is appropriate, since the consistent refrain that has underpinned the books has been Faulkner’s famous line from Requiem for a Nun: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”
In a year in which the American civil war feels like it is still in full spate, Robichaux’s recurring waking dreams, in which he sees platoons of Confederate infantry march through fields of flooded cypress, have attained prophetic weight. Burke’s song remains reassuringly the same, but with a contemporary nativist twist: from his antebellum mansion, nestled behind live oaks like a steamboat in the mist, Jimmy Nightingale, the wealthy scion of a powerful New Orleans family, works his connections with mob boss Tony Nemo and bestselling author Levon Broussard to make a movie that will honour the traditions of the South. Nightingale’s real ambitions are political, however, and Burke’s charting of his populist journey, and of the ambivalence the South still holds towards a figure who raises the shade of Huey P Long, culminates in a Make America Great Again-style rally as terrifying as any of the many explicitly violent episodes in this complex, allusive, elegiac novel.
Jane Harper’s The Dry was a publisher’s dream: a critically acclaimed debut novel that became an immediate best seller. Force of Nature (Little, Brown £12.99) is her follow-up, and it arrives without a trace of sophomore slump; if anything it is a better novel than its predecessor.
“Later, the four remaining women could fully agree on only two things. One: no-one saw the bushland swallow up Alice Russell. And two: Alice had a mean streak so sharp it could cut you.” Force of Nature begins at the rendezvous point for a corporate retreat. A company bonding exercise for BaileyTennants employees has gone disastrously wrong. In flashback, we follow the five women as their fate unfolds; in real time, Federal Agent Aaron Falk and his partner, Carmen Cooper of the Financial Investigation Unit in Melbourne, join the search, because they were looking into BaileyTennants on suspicion of money laundering, and Alice Russell is their whistleblower.
While the plot unfolds at an expertly controlled pace and is resolved in a satisfyingly ambiguous fashion, it is the relationships between the women that drive the novel, most especially Alice and Lauren, who not only have a troubled history as former school friends, but whose unhappy teenage daughters have become the source of their greatest fears. “I think parents often love their kids more than the other way round,” says Carmen to Falk late on; it’s a line that could serve as an epigraph to this thoughtful, moving, troubling novel.
Th1rt3en (Orion, £13.99), Steve Cavanagh’s fourth novel to feature likeable conman turned defence lawyer Eddie Flynn, is all about the concept, and the concept is certainly high: serial killer Joshua Kane murders his way onto the jury for the high-profile trial of Hollywood star Robert Solomon, whose defence is being run by the redoubtable Flynn. My tolerance for serial killer arcana and the dubious pseudo-science of criminal profiling is low to non-existent. Mercifully, the sturdy structure of the trial keeps the nonsense at bay, while Cavanagh’s sure-footed command of legal procedures and his ability to ratchet up the tension and render any development, however unlikely, appear plausible, makes for a real page-turner, an exhilarating rollercoaster of a read.
Alison Gaylin is the distinguished thrice-Edgar nominated American author of 10 novels. Her ninth, What Remains of Me, was my second favourite book last year. She ranks alongside Megan Abbot and Laura Lippman; that is to say, she’s one of the best there is. And yet if you want to buy her new novel here – If I Die Tonight (Arrow, £7.99) – you will have to call her AL Gaylin, for some publishing reason which passes all human understanding. Do so, nonetheless, because this novel about the profound unknowability of teenage boys, the volatility of female desire, the complicated messiness of single parenting and the ferocious power of the social media mob is a crucial text for today, a primer of suburban anxiety, hysteria, hypocrisy and fear. Told with fluency and verve, and with a keen eye for a resonant simile – a cop with a “thick moustache that lifted obscenely when he smiled, like a skirt” – and a telling detail – the teenagers huddled in the hospital, all on their phones, “ignoring the ‘No cell phones’ sign . . . which bore a picture of an old flip phone with an antenna and didn’t relate to them at all’ – If I Die Tonight is a marvellous book.
Declan Hughes is an Irish novelist, playwright and screenwriter