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].