This week, I’m taking a break from reviewing music, mainly because I’m not that enthused by what I’ve got in the review pile, and I’d rather say positive things than negative ones. So, instead I thought that I’d write about some spy fiction that I am currently reading avidly.
There are actually four novels in paperback, the fourth being “Spook Street“, and a fifth, “London Rules” will be published in hardback next February,
So, what have we got here?
I want to avoid too many spoilers ( as they are called these days), so I’ll try and just talk about the atmosphere and environment of the books. There are three obvious points of reference; Graham Greene, Len Deighton and John Le Carré. I think that of the three, the furthest away, certainly at first is Le Carré, but his spirit is still there, lurking in the shadows, and some of his terms are used in the books. I think that there is also some influence from the TV series “Spooks” detectable, but that seems almost inevitable, given that the books are dealing with the modern world of online surveillance, CCTV and the internet.
Greene is evoked in the general seediness and despondency of the surroundings in which the protagonists, MI5 operatives who have all blotted their copybooks find themselves. Relegated to a dead-end, run-down office block (known as Slough House, for reasons I won’t explain here) doing menial, boring and possibly pointless work as an alternative to sacking them, in the hope that they will get so bored that the quit the Service, the characters work for Jackson Lamb, a singularly seedy, cynical and grubby former “joe” or active agent with a past that includes Berlin, behind the Iron Curtain and other hotspots where he has clearly experienced the unpleasant realities of undercover intelligence work. This is Len Deighton (John Le Carré) territory, as becomes more and more apparent as the series progresses. Lamb is an unlikely hero, he has poor personal hygiene, boorish manners and unsavoury habits, but a hero he clearly is. He heads up this unlikely team, not as a punishment, but because he’s gone the distance and done things that most of us don’t want to think about. Also, he knows where the bodies, often literally, are buried. Ideally, he’d like a quiet life, but awkward reality keeps intruding. That’s when things get interesting, because occasionally, the misfits and fuck-ups, as Lamb describes his team, get involved in matters from which the Service has officially removed them, but where some expendable useful idiots might come in handy.
The MI5 Herron describes is a modern government agency, with targets, KPIs, performance reviews, budgetary constraints and everything else that bedevils a large modern organisation. The only thing that makes it different from, say, an IT company or a corporate legal firm is the fact that the staff are working in the world of intelligence, counter-intelligence and national security, which doesn’t preclude them from indulging in empire building, back-stabbing, character assassination (also, just plain assassination) and undermining their superiors for personal advantage.
Over the course of the four novels, the misfits and flawed personalities (including Lamb himself) get involved in situations that go way outside their official brief as intelligence desk jockeys, for a variety of reasons, and there are story arcs that span the novels, binding them into a single coherent narrative. We get to learn more about the characters as the books unfold and the ordinary players, if not their superiors, are generally not that unsympathetic, with a couple of exceptions perhaps. They are recognisable people with recognisable flaws and failings, people like the rest of us, in short.
There is violence in these novels, often graphic and brutally described, but there is also a lot of humour and, probably most interestingly, there is what comes across as a real cynicism about our political masters and mistresses, which I think is both topical and accurate. Whenever a politician arrives, there is a strong smell of humbug, bullshit and corruption accompanying them. Without giving too much away, there is the most accurate and funny skewering of todays biggest bullshitting humbug, a.k.a. Boris Johnson that you’ll read anywhere in the pages of these excellent novels. If that doesn’t make you want to read them, nothing will.
As you have probably already gathered, I love these books. I’ve binge-read them back to back and they are real page turners. I’ve picked them up first thing in the morning to get a chapter in before breakfast and I’ve lain in bed until 1am to finish them off. Read these books. If you like spy fiction, they are a superb addition to the canon and if you don’t, they just might make you change your mind about the genre.