Spook Street - Mick Herron
Spook Street - Mick Herron *****
Whose turn is it this time? You can always be sure that one of Jackson Lamb's team of bottom of the rung intelligence agents is going to get put through the wringer, tortured and beaten up pretty badly, or worse, take a bullet. As it happens, one of the regular 'slow horses' in the Slough House team gets whacked in Spook Street, permanently. Sorry for being blunt about it, but well, it goes with the territory, and there will always be plenty of other candidates to take their place in the secret service's dumping ground. Slough House is where the intelligence services demote those agents who need to be quietly 'let go', some of them having done time in the field and messed up really badly, others who will never be let anywhere near it. Since they can't be trusted to go back into normal society either, exile to Slough House means spending the rest of their days wading through reams of data to ensure that they never forget just how worthless they are. There's no place for sparing anyone's feelings here.
So when a slow horse is kidnapped, interrogated by the Dogs in the HQ at Regent's Park, dies in action or in mysterious circumstances that it's best not to make known to the general public (these things happen surprisingly frequently to a bunch of data miners), well, as I said, it goes with the territory and there's no point in taking it personally. In the last Slough House book (which seem to be recategorised now as the Jackson Lamb series), Real Tigers, it was Catherine Standish who ended up 'tested', caught up in a peculiar exercise as part of an internal power struggle that inevitably ended up going badly wrong (and how!), but it was River Cartwright who took the brunt of the fall-out. To be honest though, hardly any of the team (Jackson Lamb apart) came out of it unscathed. The experience did kind of serve to strengthen the team bond (Roderick Ho excepted obviously), even if all that really did was underline just how in-it-all-together at the bottom of the barrel the slow horses are.
Any yet, it still comes as a shock when one of Jackson Lambs' unhappy little group of misfits meets with a very sudden and nasty end - but obviously I'm not going to reveal here who that is.
The fact that it's a harsh and even callous world we are operating in here is exemplified by Roderick Ho, whose first response to the news of a dead colleague is to get in and cannibalise the computer of the recently deceased for parts to supercharge his own PC. So no, it's not Roderick Ho who takes a bullet - more's the pity some might say - but you didn't think Mick Herron was going to take the easy option on this one, did you? Far from taking the easy option in fact - we're dealing with pretty slippery characters and situations here - Mick Herron takes the more convoluted approach, so beware that nothing is as it seems and there are considerably more twists and turns that occur before we get to the end of Spook Street. There might be a new suit running the shop after the last debacle, but Lady Di Taverner is still up to her old tricks, so the potential for a messy situation of enormous proportions is more than likely.
Mick Herron's writing is viciously entertaining. In Spook Street he's as sharp as ever in the endlessly inventive witty exchanges of dialogue and put-downs - it really is laugh out loud funny - but he's also bang up to date in his observations of the nature of the 'post truth' world we live in. It might once have been the preserve of politicians and the intelligence services, but we are all living in this world now. And that can be a very dark place as we recognise even more so in Herron's latest spy thriller. Underneath the jet black humour and the blunt reactions (or lack of reactions) to what is going on, there's an air of sadness here, of bitterness and fear, of feeling powerless against greater forces beyond our control. Herron doesn't just manage to soak up the desperation of a team who are at the very bottom of the secret service heap, in them he encapsulates where we all stand in the greater scheme of things. Herron is the Chekhov of the Twitter age, the Tolstoy of a surveillance society, where focus groups and anger management courses and posted YouTube videos are the only weapons we have to empower us in our fight against very real fears and existential crises.
Well, obviously not the only weapons, else one of the Slough House crew wouldn't be getting whacked with a bullet in the head, but essentially Herron shows that human nature hasn't changed all that much, even if fear and terror comes to our door in different ways, and even if the politicians and their dogs operate in new media-savvy ways. A few familiar figures have slipped to the sidelines in Spook Street and there are a few new faces to the ranks, but the operations in power-grabbing, self-preservation, ass-covering and blame-gaming are very much in evidence. And yes, we are dealing with the now always topical subject of a terror attack in a major European city; London obviously being the city in question, the victim of a suicide bomber in the large Westacres shopping mall. If you think that's going to send the city into panic, it's nothing compared to the upheavals it causes in Spook Street, particularly when the facts of the attack and their roots to a secretive operation in France, start to come to light.
So there's not much more to be said about Spook Street. You know the old saying about what I'll have to do if I tell you? Well in this case, I don't think my life would be worth living if I gave away anything more about the plot. All that needs to be said is that Spook Street is classic Mick Herron. There's never a dull moment, and it's witty, dark, sinister and vaguely troubling. And one of the crew gets whacked. But maybe not in the way you think. Nothing is certain in this world. Best laid plans and all that. The only thing certain is that Jackson Lamb is his usual disagreeable self - to put it mildly, which he never does - rude, blunt and never lost for a one-liner put-down or a flatulent expression of his disdain. Based on where we've come so far, and the fact that Herron is on top of his game and always capable of coming up with inventive and credible twists that genuinely surprise, the only other certainty is that this latest Jackson Lamb thriller was always likely to be getting a five-star rating.
Spook Street by Mick Herron (Jackson Lamb series Book 4) is published by John Murray on 9th February 2017.