SPOOK STREET - Mick Herron SPOOK STREET

Mick Herron (www.mickherron.com)

John Murray (www.johnmurray.co.uk)

£14.99

When the Berlin Wall fell, David Cartwright was one step away from First Desk, the pinnacle of the British Intelligence Services. Now suffering the onset of dementia, the “Old Bastard”, as he is affectionately known by his grandson, River, may be in danger of revealing secrets that he has kept for over twenty years. When a young man turns up dead on his bathroom floor and David’s grandson disappears, River’s boss is called in to identify the body. It’s obvious that Cartwright has survived a botched hit, but with no idea if it was sanctioned by the Service, Jackson Lamb must play his cards very close to his chest, at least until he can find out exactly what is going on. And with only the “slow horses” to call on, who knows how long that might take?

Spook Street is Mick Herron’s fourth visit to the realms of Jackson Lamb and the assorted misfits and no-hopers that the Intelligence Service assigns to Slough House, out of harm’s way. It’s my first encounter with Herron’s work in general, and the Jackson Lamb series in particular, which is all the answer you need to the eternal question: do I need to have read the first three books? Spook Street presents Herron’s regular cast of characters with a brand new, standalone case, and anything else you need to know to enjoy this smartly-constructed thriller you’ll pick up within the first couple of chapters.

Slough House is a ramshackle building as geographically remote from the Service’s Regent’s Park headquarters as its inhabitants are operationally remote. This is the domain of Jackson Lamb, a drunken, slovenly excuse for a secret agent with questionable hygiene who would be an embarrassment to the Service, assuming he was at liberty to disclose the fact that he worked for them. Over the years, Lamb has amassed a small team, people whose operational readiness ranges from “not anywhere close” to “psychotically keen”, a group of people known to the wider community as the “slow horses”, a play on the name of the building they call home. One of these people is River Cartwright, and it is his connection with the legendary David Cartwright that gives Lamb all the reason he needs to get involved in this latest case.

From the opening pages, Spook Street comes as a pleasant surprise. With its tongue firmly in cheek, the narrative takes a less-than-serious approach to telling the story. The tone is only one of the many features that leads to inevitable comparisons with Christopher Fowler’s Bryant & May series, Slough House doing for Britain’s spies what Mornington Crescent has long done for the Metropolitan Police. Readers expecting the next LeCarré or Morgan Jones will likely be disappointed, though as a fan of both, I would urge those readers to stick with it, as they’re likely to be pleasantly surprised by the result: there is a dark heart to Spook Street, a hard-core mystery that belies the light tone, the frequent bouts of comedy. There is a sense of real danger from the beginning that leaves the reader in no doubt that none of these characters – many of whom have shared page space for three books so far – are safe, that no-one is guaranteed to survive until the end, and that a happy ending is far from likely.

The strength of Spook Street – and doubtless, the entire series – lies in Herron’s characters, and their interrelationships. For the book’s first half, Lamb appears as little more than a shape in the background, but there is little doubt that he is the heart and soul of the story. Instantly unlikeable, Lamb wears his odiousness as a badge of honour, but there is no doubt as to where his loyalties lie: this is a man who will do whatever it takes to protect his people, a close-knit group that often feels like the world’s most dysfunctional family. Newcomer J. K. Coe gives the new reader a character to connect to, someone with whom to learn the ropes of this strange new working environment. Herron also widens the scope to examine the wider Intelligence community, introducing a new First Desk and a new head of the Service’s enforcement team, policewoman-turned-spook Emma Flyte, both of whom find their worldview challenged by the existence of Lamb’s team at Slough House.

I very nearly dismissed Mick Herron’s Spook Street as just another spy novel that I could do without. Luckily for me, I ignored my first impressions and find myself richer for the experience. Herron’s irreverent look at the world of spies breathes new life into the genre and his stories deserve recognition alongside the greats of spy fiction. Already preparing to read the first book in the series, Slow Horses, I can recommend Spook Street unreservedly and assure new readers that it’s the perfect jumping-on point for anyone wishing to become familiar with Jackson Lamb & Co. It’s also the perfect alternative for fans of more serious spy fiction and crime thrillers.

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