“The mis­fit spooks grip our at­ten­tion through­out the offbeat, in­tri­cate plot”

Slough House – as you might guess from the name – isn’t ex­actly the most pres­ti­gious arm of the British Se­cret Ser­vice. In fact it’s by way of MI5’S refuse tip – a shabby, crum­bling build­ing ac­cessed via a pu­trid al­ley­way in east­cen­tral Lon­don, staffed by an il­las­sorted bunch de­scribed as “the catas­tro­phes of the in­tel­li­gence world”.

The team turn out to be a rich gallery of ad­dicts, ob­ses­sives and psy­cho­log­i­cal walk­ing-wound­eds, dumped in this scummy back­wa­ter of the Ser­vice for var­ied mis­con­ducts, or sim­ply for hav­ing an­tag­o­nised the wrong person. They’re headed up by the breath­tak­ingly charm­less Jack­son Lamb (“I don’t think of you as a team, I think of you as col­lat­eral dam­age”), the foul-mouthed, chain-smok­ing, heavy-drink­ing lead char­ac­ter in Mick Her­ron’s spy series.

So James Bond this quite de­cid­edly isn’t. Even John le Carré’s Cir­cus would seem al­most im­pos­si­bly glam­orous by com­par­i­son. Few of the denizens of Slough House are like­able, let alone ad­mirable. But in Her­ron’s hands, and much aided by his ex­cep­tional knack for sharp, sar­donic di­a­logue, the doings of this team of mis­fit spooks grip our at­ten­tion through­out the offbeat, in­tri­cate plot.

Spook Street starts with a bang – a very loud and lethal one in­deed: a par­tic­u­larly hor­ren­dous act of mass ter­ror­ism. But then Her­ron ef­fects a change of gear; on the one hand are the events at Slough House in the wake of the atroc­ity, and on the other an un­sched­uled ex­pe­di­tion to deep­est France, and into a par­tic­u­larly murky aspect of the covert past, for one mem­ber of the team. The two strands, of course, prove to be linked, though in ways you might not ac­tu­ally ex­pect.

Much of the plea­sure of read­ing this novel de­rives from Her­ron’s bone-dry hu­mour and his in­erad­i­ca­bly cyn­i­cal view of the ex­ploits of Bri­tain’s un­der­cover op­er­a­tives – at­ti­tudes that are shared by most of his char­ac­ters. Heroic or pa­tri­otic ef­fu­sions are in bless­edly short sup­ply. And al­though he’s New­cas­tle-born, the au­thor shows an in­ti­mate grasp of Lon­don ge­og­ra­phy, with an acute feel for its scruffier backstreets and less tourist-friendly cran­nies.

The plot builds in­ex­orably to a nerve-tin­gling, ac­tion-packed cli­max that would play out su­perbly on screen. And in fact a TV series adapted from the Jack­son Lamb nov­els is said to be in prepa­ra­tion. If so, that’s some­thing to be ea­gerly looked for­ward to.

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