The new spy novel from Mick Her­ron con­firms his fast-grow­ing rep­u­ta­tion as a must-read au­thor, writes

Sunday Times - - Review - @michelemag­wood Michele Mag­wood

Page 48 May 6, 2018

One of the au­thors I’m most look­ing for­ward to meet­ing at the Fran­schhoek Lit­er­ary Fes­ti­val next week is Mick Her­ron. The Bri­tish writer has been qui­etly turn­ing out a se­ries of spy nov­els that have built some­thing of a cult fol­low­ing. With Lon­don Rules, his fifth, it looks like he’s reached the tip­ping point onto the main­stream radar. The plain cover of the book ob­scures a rare com­bi­na­tion of wit, plot, af­fect­ing writ­ing and vivid char­ac­ter­i­sa­tion. It is sav­agely funny but se­ri­ous, cyn­i­cal and san­guine and whip­pingly plot­ted, veer­ing from small hu­man vi­gnettes to huge pub­lic events.

Jack­son Lamb is the axis of the se­ries, a great greedy gaseous lunk who lives on Chi­nese take­aways and tum­blers of Scotch. He’s a washed up Cold War op­er­a­tive who has been shut out of MI5 and put in charge of a band of dis­graced spies, the so-called “slow horses”. They are sta­bled in a de­cay­ing build­ing called Slough House where they eke out their days sift­ing through sta­tis­tics and drink­ing weak tea. There’s Cather­ine Stan­dish, a re­cov­er­ing al­co­holic, who Lamb teases by pour­ing her drinks; River Cartwright, scion of a leg­endary MI5 fam­ily who screwed up spec­tac­u­larly; Shirley Dan­der is a coke­head with anger prob­lems; Louisa Guy is paral­ysed by grief for her dead part­ner; and JK Coe is a psy­chol­o­gist with post-trau­matic stress disor­der, who hides un­der a hoodie with buds in his ears. And then there is the de­li­ciously aw­ful Roddy Ho, ge­nius hacker and delu­sional nar­cis­sist.

When a ter­ror­ist cell erupts into a string of at­tacks, ev­i­dence points to Ho hav­ing un­wit­tingly passed in­for­ma­tion to his girl­friend. And so the slow horses are dragged re­luc­tantly into the ac­tion, be­cause the first of the Lon­don Rules, as ev­ery­body knows, is Cover Your Arse.

Her­ron presents a sharply con­tem­po­rary view of the UK that at times bor­ders on li­bel: the pop­ulist Brex­i­teer politi­cian (and se­cret cross-dresser) Den­nis Gim­ball and his harpy colum­nist wife, Dodie; the Mus­lim politi­cian Za­far Jaf­frey, in the run­ning to be mayor of the West Mid­lands, who has some wor­ry­ing co­horts, and a vain and weak prime min­is­ter con­cerned only with his im­age.

As the ter­ror­ists strike again and again, the in­tel­li­gence ser­vices get help — al­most by ac­ci­dent — from the far­ci­cally in­ept Slough Housers.

Their bick­er­ing is blis­ter­ing but it’s Lamb who gets the best lines. He asks Louisa for an ed­u­cated guess; when she replies he barks, “I said ed­u­cated. That guess left school at 15 for a job at Asda.”

Lamb turns to Coe: “You’re the one who gets panic at­tacks, right? Be­hind you! Just kid­ding.” He com­pares eth­i­cal be­hav­iour to “a va­jaz­zle on a nun. Pretty to pic­ture, but who re­ally ben­e­fits?”

Padding through the ac­tion, and lift­ing the book to an­other plane is some ar­rest­ing de­scrip­tion of the hours of the day pass­ing.

“In some parts of the world dawn ar­rives with rosy fin­gers, to smooth away the creases left by night. But on Alder­s­gate Street . . . it comes wear­ing safe-cracker’s gloves, so as not to leave prints on win­dowsills and door­knobs; it squints through key­holes, sizes up locks, and gen­er­ally cases the joint ahead of ap­proach­ing day.”

Her­ron has, of course, been com­pared to John le Carré and Gra­ham Greene but he is en­tirely, sub­ver­sively, unique.

LMick Her­ron will be at the Fran­schhoek Lit­er­ary Fes­ti­val May 18-20 and at Ex­clu­sive Books, Hyde Park on May 22.

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