When the Cold War came to an end it signalled the likely termination for the kind of spy fiction featuring dark deeds on the part of Western and Soviet undercover agents.
John Le Carre, who wrote what is considered the best example of this kind of espionage fiction, “The spy who came in from the cold”, kept the genre going for as long as possible. Now a new kind of spy fiction has emerged in the form of four novels by Mick Herron.
The novels are all based around characters working in Slough House, shabby premises near the Barbican and a kind of retirement home for members of the British secret service who have screwed up their careers in various ways.
Alcohol and gambling addiction, anger management issues, bad luck and stitch ups by others are some of the causes for their falls from grace. No
longer an ‘arm’ of the secret services, not even a ‘finger’ (‘a finger could be on the button or on the pulse’), they collectively make up just a fingernail: ‘those you clipped, discarded and never wanted to see again’.
Somehow, and this accounts for the plot of each of the four novels, they find themselves involved in serious incidents that bring them out of their enforced idleness and into live action on the streets of London.
The actual plots are not what make these books worth reading – that of Spook Street, the most recent of the quartet is a little absurd – but what does is the combination of witty prose, a deliciously mordant sense of humour and an original cast of characters that are as mixed up as you and I.
There is Rodney Ho, a geek whose sex life exists only in his imagination; Catherine, for whom every day is a challenge to stay off the drink and hang on to her new-found dignity; River Cartwright who would like to be a Jason Bourne type but other people have a habit of just getting in the way.
Jackson Lamb is the boss who has his office on the top floor of Slough House, a rickety old building that is described with Dickensian relish, and he is the most marvellous creation in Mick Herron’s fiction.
Lamb enlivens every scene in which he appears but not because of his charm or the remotest of resemblance to a James Bond type of character.
He is rude and greedy, his sense of personal hygiene leaves something to be desired, and his chutzpah is unbounded – and he has most of the best lines in the books.
Although the novels are amusing at heart and not to be taken too seriously, they are not a million miles away from the clandestine world of secret services working for the government; the decision-makers come across as individuals predominantly concerned with covering their own backs and blaming others for their own shortcomings.
The Chilcot inquiry into Britain’s role in the Iraq war made clear how they are not to be trusted and Mick Herron’s novels are fiction confirming uncomfortable facts.