The well-written spy novel is not a hotly contested field. Le Carré, Fleming, Deighton, a few Greenes, and that’s largely it. However, we now have a new contender: Mick Herron’s Jackson Lamb series.
It was a brief but intriguing review in the TLS that first alerted me to the books, with their sidelined spooks, contemptuously nicknamed ‘slow horses’, sent to an oubliette next to the Barbican on having screwed up, and their appalling boss, the veteran Jackson Lamb, a monster of flatulence, astonishing drinking habits and withering put-downs (on requesting ‘an educated guess’, he says, on hearing what’s offered: ‘I said educated. That guess left school at 15 for a job at Asda’), who can nevertheless, on occasion, move as silently as a ninja and is seemingly omniscient.
London Rules is the fifth book in the series. Having read the previous four, and, moreover, paid for them with my own money, an extraordinary admission for a book reviewer to make, especially this one, I can say it is at least as good as the rest. There is a familiar template. The books begin with an outrage of some sort. We then cut to Slough House, the unofficial name for the slow horses’ dismal offices, whose wretched residents are being kept busy, and mindlessly bored, collecting number plates, or council tax bills, or anything not directly connected to the outrage. Jackson Lamb torments them with their own insignificance.
But then there is something they can do, often connected to the fact that it turns out, in some way, to have been the Secret Service’s fault after all, and the proper spies over at the shiny spy building in Regent’s Park end up having to dance to Jackson Lamb’s tune.
Do not get attached unwisely to any of the slow horses: there is a greater than 50 per cent chance that one of them will be killed before the book is finished. There will be politicians teasingly like ones in real life: in this instance, someone a bit like Sadiq Khan, someone a bit like Theresa May, someone a bit like Nigel Farage. A cross-dressing Nigel Farage.
The success of a good fiction series lies in its adherence to, or elegant variation from, a formula. The Bond books began going off the rails when M became a health-food nut, or when Bond started quoting poetry; heaven protect us from the day when Jackson Lamb gives up smoking, or swearing at his underlings, or, come to think of it, his overlings, if there’s such a word. (I used to read his lines out to myself in the voice of Roger Allam, in the persona of the sarcastic first officer in John Finnemore’s excellent Radio 4 comedy series, Cabin Pressure. The fit was so close that I asked Herron, via a third party, whether this was deliberate; it turns out I was right, and there is, I am delighted to report, an explicit reference to the radio show in London Rules.)
I have been raving about these books, privately, for more than a year now, and I have made many converts, and these range from respectable women novelists to my teenage son (and his older sibling), who are not, to put it mildly, generally in the market for books of any kind. The trick about the Jackson Lamb books is that they are — there’s no other word — addictive. One turns to the beginning to read them again, to squeeze the last drops out. The dialogue is first-rate, addressing and exploiting the appalling comedy of violence; the plotting of both the novelist and the characters (alas, the malevolent character based on Boris Johnson only makes a very fleeting appearance here) ditto. I cannot recommend these books strongly enough; but start with the first, Slow Horses, so you don’t miss out on anything.