Book Review: This Is What Happened - Mick Herron

This is What Happened - Mick Herron ****

Mick Herron, as we know by now from the elaborately labyrinthine twists of his wonderfully amusing accounts of the intelligence services in the Jackson Lamb/Slough House series, does the whole secrets thing well. And characters who have secrets. And characters who want desperately to keep those secrets hidden, so desperately, they're prepared to take desperate measures to keep them hidden.

This is What Happened is also about secrets and desperate measures but it's on a difference register and with a different focus from Herron's spook novels. Not that you would immediately recognise this, as the novel - a standalone work outside of the author's regular series - starts out with a young woman, Maggie Barnes, who is involved in a top secret espionage operation. Maggie is just an ordinary person, working in the mailroom of Quilp House, but she's been recruited by an MI5 agent, Harvey Wells, to keep an eye open for any irregular activity, as 'Five' have suspicions about the building being the centre of operations of a foreign power with hostile intentions and take-over plans. Who better to recruit than someone unassuming on the inside? Maggie is asked to insert a pen drive in one of the office computers one evening after work so that Intelligence can monitor activity, and... well, there it doesn't all go exactly to plan.

Inevitably however - this is still a Mick Herron novel after all - all is not as it seems. But I think not only will the reader expect that, they might initially be a little bit disappointed at how transparent the ruse seems to be when Maggie is forced to hide out in the basement of a 'safe house' as Harvey relates an improbably elaborate tale about the downfall of the whole infrastructure of the UK, now under the control of Chinese powers, that has followed in the wake of the operation. It seems unlikely, but there must be some purpose or reason behind this elaborate fiction, and you're going to want to know how that plays out.

Without giving anything away - you really can't say too much about any Mick Herron novel - there are more revelations to come as events escalate. In This is What Happened it's a measured escalation that is not quite as explosive and messy as things tend to get in his Slough House books. As backgrounds are probed and identities, personalities and behaviours are revealed however, there is most certainly a similar impact of increasing tension and suspense about how we are going to recover from a situation that has spiralled out of control. If there's one thing we've learned from the Slough House books, someone will pay a costly price.

Which brings us to another area that is different from the Jackson Lamb novels. This is a rather more serious outing for Mick Herron, and I don't just mean that it doesn't have the same kind of witty exchanges, one-liners, personality conflicts and cutting sarcasm that comes with the author's satirical outlook on power, politics and policing in the UK during these times of heightened tensions. Even if it's not strictly in the spy thriller genre, much like his peripheral Jackson Lamb series novel Nobody Walks, Herron uses the conventions of the genre (and his particular skills in this area) to take a wider look at society, to how people live, to the secrets they keep and the desperate lengths they go to in order to keep them hidden.

Again that sounds like a fairly straightforward and conventional concept, but there is something particularly interesting about Herron's take on it, not least with the setting of the novel in London. Ironically, as Herron observes, in a place like London with CCTV cameras everywhere, with everyone tweeting their activities and lives over social media, questions of identity, anonymity and secrets reaches a different level entirely, one that perhaps reveals more than we would suspect about the reality of life and maybe even about the nature of the British. Or perhaps This Is What Happened is just about one particularly gullible person, one particular person with a twisted view of women and one person determined to make up for missed opportunities to change things, which may indeed say more about wider events in contemporary society than you might think.

This is What Happened by Mick Herron is published by John Murray on 7th June 2018

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