‘Spillin’ The Beans – The Jackson Lamb novels of Mick Herron

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.

7 thoughts on “‘Spillin’ The Beans – The Jackson Lamb novels of Mick Herron

  1. Agree with all that, it’s a fantastic series. I think Deighton and possibly also Eric Ambler are the nearest precursors to Herron here; the latter’s early thrillers in particular had a nice blend of political cynicism and social realism which I can see reflected in the Lamb series.

    Besides the sheer readability of these books and the quality of the prose and the aphorisms he’s managed to create believable and sympathetic characters; you really care what happens to these people. Of the four Dead Lions was perhaps the one book I felt dipped in quality somewhat but only in comparision to the others, which were uniformly excellent.

  2. Thanks much for the recommend. I haven’t heard of these, and they sound right up my alley. I hope I can find them on these shores.

    I have said before that I don’t really keep up on LeCarre anymore because he’s just become too formulaic for me. Having said that, I need to reread The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, because I’m looking very forward to the new one. As it’s back to the old friends of the Circus stomping grounds.

  3. Wonderful, I’m just going through re-reading John LeCarre and I’ve read everything that Len Deighton has written. Actually I’m not re-reading them, I’ve discovered the joys of books on CD, so I often lie awake in the middle of the night with my earbuds in. I just listened to ‘Call for the Dead’, the book where LeCarre introduces Smiley, a wonderful ‘read’. All this is courtesy of the Sonoma County library system. I just placed a request for ‘Dead Lions’, I’ll get it later today. They have all those you mention plus several more, I’d never heard of him so I’m glad for the recommendations.
    If you go to Wiki [https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Len_Deighton] there’s an interesting paragraph about the various LD novels that are currently in production as films, the triple Bernard Sampson trilogy plus SS GB.
    Highly recommended is ‘Bomber’, an historical novel about a bomber command raid over Germany and ‘Winter’ which is an unusual book, it reveals the precedents of the Berlin Winter family and provides an historical background to several of the characters in Deighton’s nine novels about the British intelligence agent Bernard Samson, who grew up in the ruins of Berlin after World War 2.
    Eric Ambler is another unknown to me, the library has 27 titles by him, any suggestions as where to start?

    • The right order to read the Jackson Lamb novels is;

      1) Slow Horses
      2) Dead Lions
      3) Real Tigers
      4) Spook Street

      If you read them in the wrong order, some things won’t make much sense.

    • Ambler’s best works, in my opinion, are the early ones, written in the late 1930’s.

      Uncommon danger, Epitaph for a spy, Mask of Dimitrios, and Journey into Fear are all excellent. Best read in chronological order, some minor characters reappear.

      Of that era, Geoffrey Household’s Rogue Male is another classic of the genre.

  4. Half way through ‘Horses’. But something else occurs to me, any LeCarre fan would love ‘The Pigeon Tunnel – Stories from my life’ by John LC.

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