Book Review

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This is What Happened, by Mick Herron

Notwithstanding the inaccuracy of the strapline for this story, displayed at the bottom of the front cover; I appreciate that it is a common figure of speech: “some stories you can’t make up” – but unless this story purports to be true reportage, it obviously IS made up!; on the basis of the two previous books by this author which I have read in the Jackson Lamb [aka Slow Horses] series (you can read my review here), despite it not being one of those, I set out to read it with high hopes. It could probably more accurately be described as a novella, because at 241 pages, set in 13.75pt Bembo [a generous font anyway], it doesn’t take very long to power through.

It starts off in relatively familiar spy-trope territory, with the protagonist, “[t]wenty-six-year-old Maggie Barnes … someone you would never look at twice”, ostensibly undertaking a mission for her MI5 handler, Harvey Wells (I could suggest an attribution for this name, but that could easily spoil the plot!), in which she is required to surreptitiously insert a monitoring program outside office hours into the computer system of the London-based company, which is Chinese-owned, for which she works as a lowly post-room clerk: Harvey assures her that this action will be vital for the ongoing security of their country, to thwart what could be a disastrous potential cyber-attack by the Chinese government. The mission is successfully accomplished, albeit not without a hitch, being discovered by one of the company’s security guards, her evasion of which she is subsequently informed has resulted in the death of said employee.

Harvey handles this unfortunate dénouement by installing her in a safe house or, to be more precise, a safe basement flatlet with only small and obscured high-level living room windows, in an anonymous London terrace. Apparently, the other flats in the building are occupied, so she must not leave the accommodation for the foreseeable future, until Harvey deems it safe for her to return to some sort of normal life. Unfortunately, as the weeks turn into months, Harvey tells her that society is breaking down, despite her heroic action, thanks to the cunning intervention of the Chinese, which the British appear to have been powerless to resist. Naturally enough, she becomes increasingly institutionalised by this incarceration but, given that she has always been quite reserved and undemonstrative, she learns to accept her isolation, albeit not without occasional depression. Two years pass, and still there is no sign of an improvement in the world outside her obscured windows; eventually, she persuades Harvey to let her venture outside, albeit during the night, when there is little likelihood of encountering anyone threatening; nevertheless, she very quickly finds the experience frightening, and is mightily relieved once Harvey has hustled her back to her safe haven.

That is parts one & two of the book. Part three introduces us to Dickon Broom, whose library card Maggie discovered at the back of the wardrobe in her tiny bedroom: in her highly susceptible mental state, she fantasises that he was an agent who also had the need of the safe house at some previous time; she doesn’t share this with Harvey, though. In fact, he’s a freelance English teacher, although he is also able to teach politics (“Not to a very high level”) and GCSE Italian. He is looking for new challenges, after leaving his previous employment at a school for foreign students who want to learn English as a second language. Although he knows that his prowess with the opposite sex leaves a lot to be desired, he has recently met a woman called Sue, who is looking for her younger sister, who went missing two years ago. Coincidentally, Maggie is also estranged from her older sister, Meredith, but this she has also neglected to mention to Harvey.

This is as far as I can go without completely spoiling the plot, but suffice to say that the story doesn’t develop the way the initial setup would suggest. The ending is satisfying, without being easily predictable so, although it might not fit neatly into one of the standard fiction compartments, if you are happy to approach it without preconceptions, it is an enjoyable read or, at least, I found it so. It was published in Great Britain, 2018, by John Murray (Publishers), ISBN 978-1-47365-732-8 [hardback; other formats are available].

Book Review

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Our Kind of Traitor, by John le Carré

Many people hold le Carré’s work in very high regard; I consider myself to be one of those; so I was rather unsure, as I started reading this book, first published in 2010 and again in 2011 by Penguin Books, ISBN 978-0-241-96785-0 (2014), whether this might be one of his less successful books. It starts in Antigua with Peregrine (Perry) Makepiece and “Gail, his long-standing girlfriend” on holiday, booked after his father had died from “the same cancer that had carried of his mother two years earlier, leaving Perry in a state of modest affluence.” In the meantime, he had begun to question his direction in life, deciding to leave academia in Oxford and “qualify as a secondary-school teacher in one of his country’s most deprived areas.” Gail was also undecided as to whether her future should consist of marriage & babies and “give up the Bar…or should she continue to pursue her meteoric career in London?” So, “a holiday in Antigua looked like providing the ideal setting in which to do it.” Unfortunately, Perry, who is an excellent tennis player, makes the mistake of allowing himself to be cajoled into a match with “a muscular, stiff-backed, bald, brown-eyed Russian man of dignified bearing in his middle fifties called Dima.” Almost inevitably, given the author, his nationality means that he will have a story to tell that will be of interest to the security services back at (Perry’s) home.

The narrative develops quite slowly, hence my initial concern, but le Carré’s skill is in giving the characters space, in the combination of present-day & flashback, rather than rushing into a bullet-point checklist of narrative stages. Perry’s contacts are suitably interested in what he has to tell them about Dima and, perhaps somewhat predictably, I regret to say, the man running the operation (although not at the top of his chain of command) is an eccentric nonconformist maverick, by the name of Hector Meredith (think John Hurt); perhaps there’s only room in spy fiction for one Smiley? Perry & Gail are not entirely unwilling participants in the operation to exfiltrate Dima to England, but the main complication for the planners is that Dima has a large extended family, which he refuses to leave behind. The bulk of the action takes place in Switzerland, where Dima and his family are currently based, and both Perry & Gail go beyond the call of duty to assist the operation. Overall, it goes reasonably smoothly, as a result of the meticulous planning undertaken by Hector’s department; in fact, the main threat to the operation comes from the ‘suits’ back in England. I can’t say I was particularly rooting for the protagonist, Dima, given that he is an unpleasant example of the new breed of Russian criminal, but if only as a result of my rather pale patriotism, I was hoping that neither Perry nor Gail would come to any harm. The dénouement is something of an anticlimax, leading to the death of one of the main characters, but I will say no more to avoid spoiling the plot. We are left to draw our own conclusions as to the consequences which are not spelled out at the very end, which I always find rather frustrating, as I am a completist when it comes to stories! I’m glad to be able to say that I have read another book in le Carré’s canon, but I wouldn’t describe it as one of his best.

Book Review

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White Silence, by Jodi Taylor

This book is described on the back cover as “a twisty supernatural thriller that will have you on the edge of your seat.”; I’m not in the habit of reading fiction about the supernatural. I have a compendium of Edgar Allen Poe stories, Tales of Mystery and Imagination, though I don’t know if I would ever be in the mood to read one but, that said, this book is actually a very good read and, whilst I wouldn’t go so far as to say I was literally on the edge of my seat (mostly recumbent, either in bed or on a settee), I did find the early part quite engaging, given that I was genuinely concerned for the main character, Elizabeth Cage. She grew up knowing that she was different: despite being able to look at someone and know things about them they don’t even know themselves, she says “I don’t know who I am. I don’t know what I am.” She sees people’s auras which, because she’d never heard the term as a child, she called their colour; we are not told anything about her real parents, but she was adopted as a child, and her adoptive father is very patient with her, telling her with the benefit of age & experience that restraint is always better than just blurting out what she knows about people: “knowing things is all very well and good, but keeping them to yourself is better.” This is also brought home to her when she realises that people who might seem normal to everyone else can appear very threatening to her by the way their colour manifests itself.

After some awkward experiences at school, hence the paternal advice, she learns to become deliberately average, mediocre, so that she doesn’t attract attention. By her early twenties, when she is working for the local council in the records office, a repetitive job she relishes, she has lost both parents, but still lives in their house; after an incident with a public park ‘flasher’, who uses a cute puppy as a distraction for his targets (and she doesn’t initially see him as a threat which, apart from his aberrant behaviour, he isn’t: more of an annoyance), she meets her future husband, Ted, who is then a detective with the local police: he came to tell her that the flasher had been arrested. Ted seems very enamoured of Elizabeth, and seven months later, they marry, and move into Ted’s own house. Before too long in this new idyll, Ted surprises Elizabeth by telling her that he has been offered a job “in the private sector”: head of security at a private clinic “with a high security clearance”, run by a Doctor Sorensen, where “some pretty important people” sometimes stay.

Although Elizabeth is somewhat unsettled by this, she accepts Ted’s assertion that it will be a step up for him, so she doesn’t offer any opposition. Soon she meets the doctor at a summer open day at the clinic, but she is immediately on her guard: “his colour, a weak and weedy thing of insipid blue-white, suddenly flared up – like one of those geysers in a national park – and roared out towards me. Like a tidal wave of dirty milk.” During this first occasion, she also meets a character called Michael Jones, described by Ted as a colleague, but Elizabeth could see that he was “damaged … I suspected he’d suffered a loss, and very recently, too.”

She survives this first encounter, despite hearing a disembodied voice warning her to leave immediately and not come back, but five months later, she is unable to avoid being figuratively dragged by Ted to the clinic’s Christmas party. Despite the effect of Sorensen’s laugh being “rather like broken glass hitting a metal surface”, he behaves “impeccably”. Michael Jones is there again, this time claiming to be a patient, and he is evidently very drunk; so drunk, in fact, that with Elizabeth’s help, Ted decides to sneak him into an upstairs empty room in an area monitored by an employed nurse; this is achieved successfully. Other than that, no incidents occur to worry Elizabeth. Her domestic happiness thereafter was unfortunately short-lived, because soon an incident occurs that changes her world irrevocably. I don’t want to spoil the reader’s enjoyment by revealing any other details, other than that Michael Jones would play a large part in the rest of Elizabeth’s life as described in the book. This book is one of quite a few by this author, several of which appear to deal with the subject of time (always an incentive for me), and they are included in a series called The Chronicles of St Mary’s; some of these are short stories. This one is published in paperback by Accent Press Ltd, Cardiff, 2017, ISBN 978-1-78615-565-8, and if you like books with a supernatural element, I heartily recommend it.

Book Review


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London Rules, by Mick Herron

This book, published by John Murray (Publishers) in paperback in 2018, ISBN 978-1-47365-740-3, is the fifth and latest in a series of five spy thrillers that are presented in the flyleaf as “Jackson Lamb thrillers” and, inevitably, comparisons are made with Graham Greene and “the spycraft of le Carré”. This book follows closely on the heels of the previous story, Spook Street, which featured a character called David Cartwright, referred to privately, but fondly, by his grandson River as “the old bastard”, or OB for short. I could be mistaken, of course, but this choice of name, for the former, is very likely a tip of the hat to the author’s rôle model, John le Carré, real name David Cornwell of course, and recently deceased. At the end of the previous story, the OB is consigned to a rest home, as a result of his obvious dementia (which shouldn’t be any sort of plot spoiler, if you are able to read that story, as this condition is evident from the start of the book), but his grandson who, arguably, occupied the lead rôle in the narrative, also figures in the latest book, again as a member of what can only loosely be described as a team, known as the “slow horses” (a description not particularly difficult to fathom) working out of a secret service London backwater known as Slough House. Only having read these two stories, back-to-back courtesy of my gratifyingly efficient local library, I can’t include the other three in this assessment, but on the surface, these stories are not so much “Jackson Lamb thrillers” as “slow horses” thrillers, as they appear to dominate the action; however, this is possibly missing the point, that Lamb undoubtedly rules his roost, in his own sardonic, sarcastic, and frequently scatological way, and is experienced enough to know when to allow the operatives who have been foisted upon him, for a variety of reasons, to operate on their own initiative, but also to defend them, provided they don’t make the fatal error of crossing him. He also has a healthily pathological dislike of authority, and makes it his business to accumulate ‘dirt’ on any superior who might make the mistake of trying to compromise him.

It must be difficult to conceive of a completely original scenario for a spy story, but this one starts with a series of apparently unconnected incidents in England that fall into the category of terrorism, and a member of the department, Roderick Ho, known as Roddy, is allowing himself to be manipulated by his “girlfriend”, Kim, into helping her with certain computer-related tasks, mistakenly believing that she is infatuated with him (as, indeed, are all females with whom he comes in contact: in his own mind, of course). This is not known to his colleagues initially, for obvious reasons, but when an attempt is made on his life, and one of them is present, they start to take notice, and follow him, only narrowly preventing a second attempt. The terror incidents appear to have an amateurish quality about them, and this possibly explains why the murder of Roddy Ho by the same team also failed, although the presence of some of his colleagues did contribute to this. Before long, an explanation for the terror campaign is suggested by another of the team, a psychologically damaged young man by the name of J K Coe, who seems to be perpetually dressed in hoodie and jeans, and plugged into an iPod which isn’t necessarily playing any music. His previous activity in the service is known as “psycheval”, so it isn’t unduly surprising that he is a deep thinker who is very sparing with his verbal output. His hypothesis brings into contention two politicians, one more generic than the other; this is Zaffar Jaffrey, “outside the London mayor, … the highest-profile Muslim player in the country”, who is well-placed to win the position of Mayor in the West Midlands; the other is pretty obviously modelled, albeit with at least one significant difference, on Nigel Farage: “the showboating MP who orchestrated the Brexit vote”. His wife is the “tabloid columnist who’s crucifying Whelan in print”, Whelan being the relatively new First Desk of MI5 at Regent’s Park, Claude Whelan, who is also very conscious of the machinations of “his own deputy, who’s alert to his every stumble”, given that she regarded the position as hers, before being supplanted by Whelan. Dodie Gimball, the wife of the Brexiteer, has also been furnishing her husband with information with which to discredit Jaffrey, because in addition to his obvious bigotry, he suspects that, given this penchant for racial stereotypes, Jaffrey is too good to be true.

The dénouement of this latest story is not a great surprise, but it does tie up the loose ends neatly enough, and it isn’t quite as traumatic as the aforementioned previous story, if that is any sort of incentive for you to read it! These are eminently readable books, especially if you like spy thrillers, which can sometimes be too clever for their own good, and after reading only two of them, which dovetail nicely together, I have developed an affection for the variously damaged slow horses, who can occasionally be effective, in spite of Lamb’s contempt, which becomes more transparent as the narrative proceeds, but one explanation for this is that he doesn’t want them to think (let alone believe) that they are anywhere near as clever as he is, and perish the thought that he might actually respect any of them….. In a way, this makes Lamb the most difficult character to identify with, and certainly to like, but that isn’t necessarily a bad thing, and it is comforting to know that, however badly any or all of the slow horses might foul up (which they do), Lamb will always be there to cover their backs (to ensure that his own back is covered in the process, of course), even though he will complain mightily and make their lives almost (but not quite) unbearable for a time. The mind boggles to think that this setup bears even a passing resemblance to a real section of the British secret service, so probably better to ignore that, and just enjoy these stories for what they are, very cleverly written fiction.