No tuxedos, no superheroes, no gadgets. The Slough House spy thrillers by Mick Herron feature the spies who, having messed up, have been consigned to a dead-end department [in London, not Slough, but that’s the joke]. Dead Lions is second in the series. The title is taken from a kids’ party game, ‘You have to pretend to be dead. Lie still. Do nothing.’ When elderly retired streetwalker Dickie Bow, a spy good at following people on the street and discovering their secrets, turns up dead on a train near Oxford no-one takes much notice. Except Jackson Lamb, Slough House boss and pragmatist. The bloody-minded Lamb considers whether an old Soviet cold war tactic, planting sleeper agents in a foreign country to activate at a future date, is again being used. But who by, and why? What is there to gain? Herron populates his stories with many layers and in that they are John le Carré like. Le Carré had his own alcoholic, shambling agent in Alec Leamas and Jackson Lamb, like Leamas, is good at talking his way into unlikely places, places others would never expect to find answers. He also has a cynical sense of humour, rather like Len Deighton’s Harry Palmer.
While Lamb is checking up on Dickie Bow, his team of misfits at Slough House continue to do their day jobs – boring data input and administration, checking identity profiles, chained to their desks – not very well. It doesn’t take much to distract them. IT guy and social inadequate Roderick Ho has spotted a girl he fancies and is building an unflattering fake online profile for her boyfriend in the hope she will fall for Ho instead. Except Ho hasn’t spoken to her and doesn’t know he exists. Min Harper and Louisa Guy have been seconded by Spider Webb, a ‘suit’ from Regent’s Park MI5 headquarters, to do a security audit ahead of a meeting he has with a Russian oil billionaire at ‘The Needle’. Building survey, exits and entrances, surveillance, risks and threats. Basically, they have to write a report. Webb, who keeps the purpose of the meeting a secret, will handle the exciting stuff himself.
River Cartwright, visiting his former spy grandfather ‘the OB’, shares the news about Bow’s death. The OB recounts the story of Alexander Popov, a fake Russian who MI6 regarded as an invention to spread disinformation to the West. “If Moscow Centre said ‘Look at this’, the sensible thing was to look in the opposite direction,” says the OB. Lamb’s number two Catherine Standish, former alcoholic, avoids the temptation of the bottle by considering why a bald man on a rainy station platform would leave his hat on a train. Downstairs in a pokey office, Slough House’s two newest recruits Shirley Dander and Marcus Longridge, considered by the old lags as a spy for ‘Lady’ Di Taverner, irritate each other and resent their demotions. And so, the spies worry about being spied upon.
This is a wonderful smoke and mirrors story where nothing is at it seems. It starts with a death which the mainstream spies at the Park dismiss as irrelevant, but which Lamb’s band of rejects set out to solve. Herron’s plot mixes together the ambitious intelligence officers with the misguided and often not bright slow horses, so you won’t know who is on the right track.
Different. Wonderful. Difficult to put down.
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Click the title to read my review of Slow Horses, first in the Slough House series.
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DEAD LIONS by Mick Herron #bookreview https://wp.me/p5gEM4-5oF via @SandraDanby