Book Review: Joe Country by Mick Herron
Joe Country - Mick Herron
The omens aren't good for the unfortunate staff consigned to the scrapheap of the intelligence service in Slough House. Mick Herron traditionally starts his Jackson Lamb novels with a poetic image such as a ray of light briefly illuminating the gloomy interior of the dank building they inhabit or a cat wandering through the building, both imaginary since neither light nor sentient creature would willingly go near the place. The opening image of Joe Country is a burning owl escaping from a blazing barn falling to the ground in a clump of ashes - for real rather this time rather than as a poetic metaphor - sets the tone for what is to come. Joe Country shows us another place that MI5 operatives visit but none ever leave. Death.
Not that the inhabitants of Slough House are unfamiliar with deaths in their ranks, and at least one of them has actually sort of come back from the dead - cheating death being a useful trick to have up your sleeve in the spy trade. No, the shadow of death in the field still hangs over Slough House and its staff from recent events, despite being demoted to perform the lowest and most tedious of menial administrative tasks. But, hey ho, time moves on and there are plenty of other screw-ups ready to fill the growing number of vacated desks in Slough House, and for some of the more incompetent and careless, fill a grave sooner than they otherwise might.
That's another attitude that sets the tone and characterises Mick Herron's irreverent approach to the spook game, recognising as he does that people - even those in high places (oh, I don't know, like a PM or something) and tasked with important matters of national security (like a Minister of Defence maybe) - all have very human flaws and can be ill-suited to their job, incompetent, or just unfortunate. Following Oscar Wilde's view about misfortune, to screw-up once is perhaps forgivable (if you can count the ignominy of being dumped in Slough House as being 'forgiven' in any way), but screw-up twice in this game and the carelessness will cost you dearly.
There's one death however that has already been foretold, and that was the impending demise of River Cartwright's grandfather, affectionately and at the same time unaffectionately referred to as the OB (Old Bastard). A former operative from another age before secrets were easy game to any hacker (or even just with access to Google), the OB has taken some Cold War secrets to his grave with him, but not before dementia spewed out a few uncomfortable and unreliable memories. But as well as a death there's a resurrection of sorts, as Cartwright's father turns up at the funeral, and it's not to pay any last respects. His reappearance takes the Slough House team back out into the field, unleashed in joe country. Which is Wales apparently.
Obviously, you get more out of Joe Country if you are aware of the history that lies behind these characters, and I can't recommend the other books in Mick Herron's Jackson Lamb/Slough House novels highly enough. What is important here is not that the reader is aware of the ups and downs (mostly downs) in their backgrounds, as much as how over the series Herron has developed some wonderful characters and a richly satirical outlook, liberally laced throughout with snappy banter and laugh-out-loud one-liners that would never be permitted in any other workplace, or uttered by anyone other than someone as irredeemable rude and physically revolting as Jackson Lamb.
Some of his longer-serving colleagues are still around, including the brilliant creation (in his own mind at least) of Roderick Ho, Catherine Standish and Louisa Guy, all of whom have new and old challenges to face up to in Joe Country, Catherine with her alcoholism, Guy still getting over the death of Min Harper back in Dead Lions, Ho just living in blissful unawareness of what being Ho really means. And then there are the more recent recruits, but who knows how long it will take them to accept that no way out of Slough House other than the aforementioned, and until they accept that, the chances of them meeting a similar fate are quite likely. Particularly if Lady Di Taverner, First Desk in MI5, is aware that something bad is going down and wants to ensure that someone else takes the blame when it inevitably goes wrong.
Say what you like about Jackson Lamb, and not a lot of it will be good, but he won't let anyone mess around with his unhappy little band of screw-ups. Haring off into joe country however, keen to prove at any opportunity - to themselves at least - that they are undeserving of being the ridicule of the secret service, chances are they'll mess things up pretty badly themselves. Herron throws in a few topical subjects, a few thinly-disguised public figures (Peter Judd still having dangerous influence on public life), all the usual back-stabbing and back-covering, keeping only a few surprises about the nature of Jackson Lamb and Slough House in reserve for maybe the next book. In the meantime, Joe Country is up there with the best of this series.