If nobody does crime drama like the Scandinavians, then nobody does espionage like the French. The Bureau is arguably the best espionage drama ever produced. Primus Inter Pares, it is a hard act to follow, but Mick Herron writes in such an appealing style that the lane switch required is made with the minimum of discomfort.
Those reputed to be the premier spy agencies in the world can be blindsided. Just think Israel this weekend when caught unaware by a Palestinian counter terrorist strike. Even Slough House with its collective of fuck-ups would be hard pressed to fall asleep in the sentry box for so long.
Catherine Standish is kidnapped. River Cartwright makes an unorthodox solo run to secure her release, opening himself up to accusations of betrayal from the Dogs eager to take down a cat, life by life. Not the Animal Farm canines but pigs of the same sow. Calamity descends. They may be Slow Horses but they are old horses and know the course second to none.
Jackson Lamb, is, well, Jackson Lamb, cunning and far sighted as well as vulgar. The Slow Horses take off on a gallop to crack this one. The crack of the whip to get this lot bolting out of the traps comes from the buttocks of Lamb whose irreverent attitude was summed up in his characterising of an adversary as having a mind of a razor – disposable.
Standish is a recovering alcoholic. While in captivity, lunch arrives, served up with a small bottle of wine, which after a while looks irresistible. One glass should do no harm but once she falls off the wagon she will lie by the side of the road, maybe never to be picked up and dusted down again. If she succumbs her last ride on a Slow Horse will be in Real Tigers, ever after remembered as a Joe who was dismissed with ignominy. Can she hold out against everything but temptation?
Standish is not the only horse with vet defying addiction issues. Marcus Longridge and Shirley Dander are slaves to cocaine or gambling. Their bullying of of Rodney Ho – who in spite of his superciliousness is quite an effective operative – does little to endear them to the reader. How any of them manage to pass vetting to begin with . . .
Dame Ingrid Tearney and Diana Taverner can’t stand each other and their endless game of one-upmanship is played out on a spook chess board where there seem to be more dark knights than the rules allow for. It is observed of Taverner that if ever ‘she self-destructed, she’d find a way of doing so to her own advantage.’
These are some of the characters and their travails that Mick Herron draws together in his irreverent series of novels and novellas. A persistent theme is the fly in the secrets ointment: 'the more secret something needed to be, the more arse covering was necessary for when it leaked.’ And Home Secretary Tony Judd is determined to cover his own arse while groping that of any female who crosses his path, prompting Herron’s contempt for the class chauvinism that governs:
his tone had that same puncturable quality you heard when government ministers dripping with inherited wealth lectured the nation on the culture of entitlement.
Central to the plot was a body of paperwork colloquially referred to as 'the whackjob files.' Not necessarily religious maniacs but a net much more expansive that aims to trap all those who subscribe to some conspiracy theory:
Downing Street’’ run by lizards, the Royal Family are aliens, UFOs visit regularly, and the Soviet Union never collapsed and has been running the world since ‘89’ . . . with the internet you can have a paranoid fantasy at breakfast and a cut following by teatime.
Tugging the tiger's tale can have fatal consequences, and Herron is not afraid to pronounce life extinct when the reader least expects it.
Mick Herron, 2017, Real Tigers. Published by John Murray. ISBN-13: 978-1473674202.
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