Tuesday, March 12, 2013
Dead Lions, by Mick Herron
After reading Slow Horses, I went back and worked my way through Herron's earlier books, which are all very good. The first one, Down Cemetery Road, is a wonderful book that not only introduces a unique character (private detective Zoe Boehm, who returns in several sequels) but also begins with one of the funniest set pieces I have ever encountered in a crime novel, set (believe it or not) in a dinner party in a suburban home).
Slow Horses introduced Slough House, a sort of halfway house for disgraced spies, members of Britain's MI5 that the organization is hoping to induce to leave the service by setting them up for endless bureaucratic tasks and perpetual boredom in an office distant from the central hub of headquarters. The novel also features some of the twistiest plotlines in crime fiction, something that all of Herron's books share. Dead Lions offers the same setting and the same pleasure in following the sudden twists and turns, but in a somewhat different context. Slow Horses dealt with terrorism (or, more properly, the manipulation of the fear of terrorism). Dead Lions deals with the remnants of the Cold War, within and beyond the security services.
Jackson Lamb, a central but not the main character of the earlier book, is at the very center here. He's a scruffy old warrior, set out to pasture in Slough House, in charge of the other "slow horses," as they are known in the service. When a former agent shows up dead on a train, Lamb involves his team of losers in finding out what might have led up to the death. From that point, the story involves embedded spies, gangsters, former KGB agents (some real and some mythical), and even young love (some casual, some committed, always dangerous). The story is funny but also very dark, and the specter of John LeCarré is explicitly invoked but also undercut or recast in a 21st century landscape.
The novel is beautifully written but also elegantly structured. I have spoken before of a setpiece at the beginning of one of Jo Nesbø's novels, in which a drop of water is followed as it runs through an old house. Herron offers not one but two setpieces, to frame the novel, but just as it's not good to offer spoilers about a book's plot, it's wrong to telegraph the pleasures of reading a well-built book. Ever since finishing Slow Horses (and passing it along to anyone I could think of), I've been waiting for a possible sequel. Now that it's here, I have the pleasure of experiencing it, along with the pang of having finished it (and having to wait again, for more from Herron). I see that he has a story coming out that revives the career of Zoe Boehm--perhaps that will tide me over...