It’s good to be back in Spook Street, home of the nation’s secret service. From a handful of locations across London, its dedicated employees struggle ceaselessly against the nation’s enemies, when not otherwise engaged in scratching each other’s backs or scratching each other’s eyes out.
Spook Street is Mick Herron’s fourth novel in the series, and like its predecessors its focus is the activities of the ‘slow horses’, the Service’s rejects. Their records irredeemably blotted by past transgressions, these men and women have been despatched to Slough House, a small but hideous office block near the Barbican, where they are condemned to spend the rest of their careers engaged on the sort of tasks that Kafka might have invented for Sisyphus.
Presiding over this bureaucratic gulag is Jackson Lamb, one of the most reliably disgusting characters in modern fiction. At one point, in one of those bravura flourishes that make this series such a pleasure, Lamb is described as ‘surveying his slow horses… the way a battery farmer might inspect his chickens’.
The story begins when a flash mob of innocent teenagers assembles at Westacres, an enormous retail dome in west London, just in time to form part of the bloodbath that follows a terrorist explosion. Meanwhile, one slow horse, River Cartwright, is wrestling with a personal problem in the shape of his grandfather, the Old Bastard, a former Service legend who is now flirting with dementia. What do you do with a retired spy when his brain begins to disintegrate? The O.B. has a memory full of lethal secrets and a body trained to kill.
The problem swiftly escalates when the O.B. vanishes, leaving a corpse in his bath — a corpse that Jackson Lamb cheerfully identifies as River. To make matters worse, it looks as if the O.B. may have had some connection with the Westacres bomb. There are secrets that the O.B. has confided to no one, even his grandson.
All the slow horse misfits, from Jackson Lamb downwards, have pockets of expertise and redeeming qualities. But Herron’s characters aren’t intended to be naturalistic. Nor are the almost cartoonish events (two car crashes! hurrah!) that gently mock the conventions of the cruder type of thriller. The battles are a particular pleasure. The previous novel, Real Tigers, featured a
double-decker bus as a weapon. This one has, among other items in the armoury, a kettle full of boiling water.
Stylistically, you can draw comparisons with the work of Raymond Chandler, though Herron keeps a tighter grasp on his narrative than Chandler ever did. But the story takes second place to the prose. The dialogue crackles. Herron is a master of timing, word by word, sentence by sentence. His language creates its own world, with streaks of satire and loss that prevent it from becoming too comfortable.
Give yourself a treat and hurry on down to Spook Street.