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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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.

Book Review

Devil’s Feast, by M. J. Carter

Alexis-Benoit-Soyer-FB

This is not the sort of book I would generally feel was worthy of review; it is not a biography (but see below, to explain the main image), but a workmanlike murder mystery set in Victorian times, published by Penguin Books, 2017 (ISBN 978-0-241-96688-4), and although the pace is somewhat stodgy, it is a decent enough read, with the culprit not being revealed until very near the end; also, the contemporary historical detail, including the political climate of the time, seems authentic; what interested me, once I had finished the book (with only a small sigh of relief) was the historical afterword. This explains that a few of the characters, and most of the places in the story really existed, although the timeline has been adjusted in places, to suit the narrative.

The setting is London, and the primary location is the Reform Club, which was set up in 1837 by a group of Radical MPs (I am shamelessly lifting these details from the book), including one William Molesworth, one of our characters. There was some tension between the Radicals and the Whigs, who later formed the main body of the Liberal Party, but these comprised the membership of the Reform; Molesworth remained a Radical all his life and was the only one to serve in the Liberal government of 1853. An added element of tension, albeit very mild, is injected into the story as one of the ‘sleuths’, ex-East India Army Captain William Avery, is a Devon Tory by birth and conviction (so thereby treated with some suspicion or even hostility by some of the club’s Committee), which seems somewhat odd, given that he is a man of modest means & upbringing; although that is possibly to judge him too much by current standards?

When the Reform Club’s grand new building opened in Pall Mall in 1841, its kitchens were dubbed “the eighth wonder of the world”: the most modern & advanced of their kind, and thousands were able to take tours of them. Credited with the excellent reputation of these kitchens, in no small part because he invented numerous “practical, ingenious ideas”: cooking paraphernalia as well as pioneering the use of gas as a cooking method; a Frenchman, Alexis Soyer, 1810-1858, “was the first real celebrity chef, a brilliant inventive cook and a shameless self-publicist … part Heston Blumenthal, part Jamie Oliver.” Throughout his time at the Reform Club, Soyer had a stormy relationship with its Committee: he was censured for insolence and, in 1844, for financial dishonesty, when he was accused (although he was not alone in that) of having falsified the butcher’s account; despite a vote of the Committee to sack him being narrowly lost, he resigned anyway. Another of this story’s characters, the club Chairman, Sir Marcus Hill, was able to use his influence & careful management to get Soyer reinstated; however, the matter “left a permanent bitterness in the relations with the club.”

Three are several murders in the story, although not all are initially interpreted as such, and the second of the pair of sleuths, albeit the more proficient of the two, Jeremiah Blake, is not able to participate actively in the investigation until roughly half-way through the book, for reasons that I won’t reveal here; in fact, for the majority of the investigation he has to masquerade as Avery’s manservant, which is understandably somewhat inhibiting, although more for Avery than for Blake himself! There is also some historical information about poisonings in the afterword, given that it is the method of murder here, which I don’t think is revealing too much about the story, and mention is also made of Thomas Wakley, founding editor of the Lancet, and he is also one of the book’s characters. Week after week, in the pages of the Lancet, still one of the world’s most respected medical journals, Wakley exposed evidence of food swindling: legislation didn’t arrive until 1860. So as said, not a top-flight story, but easy if slow reading, and for me, at least, the historical accuracy makes the story all the more enjoyable.