If another spy from another time was ‘stirred, not shaken,’ this one is most definitely shaken… with a dash of humour.
Those of you who are enamoured of the genre should be rapt in this, the fourth book in a series by Mick Herron. Three prior titles, Slow Horses, Dead Lions and Real Tigers, are now joined by Spook Street. All are based upon the team – a relative term – at Slough House, a final stopping off point for espionage agents who’ve stuffed up, neither yet pensioned off nor offered an ‘enhanced retirement package’ (a euphemism for putting them out of their own and everyone else’s worries).
One of the first things a new reader will note is Herron’s oft wry humour, which he uses to soften a frequently bleak, paranoid world in which there is little trust. To provide an example, the title of his first book in the series, Slow Horses, is a two-way play on words relating to the ratty building in which the team of mediocre spies is based: Slough House.
By inference, Slough House is an arm of the Intelligence Service, but ‘arm’ is probably pitching it too strong, as is finger. But fingernails… those you clipped, discarded and never wanted to see again. So Slough House was a fingernail of the Service.
Spook Street starts with a flash mob descending on Westacres, a massive London shopping centre. As their performance gets into full swing, Samit Chatterjee, a Community Regulation Officer (Security Guard in everyday language) covers his mouth to hide his expression of pleasure, a gesture that protects his teeth and aids in his later identification. A lone suicide bomber has detonated a device that kills dozens.
The blast… left little intact, shattered bone and pulverised mortality, reduced all nearby life to charred stubble.
Chapter 4 begins, A mobile phone vibrating on a hard surface sounds like a fart, and it will be noted by the astute reader that flatulence is very much part of the Jackson Lamb persona. By such means, Lamb receives a phone call in the wee small hours of the morning. There has been a shooting at the home of a retired spook, David Cartwright. Lamb, rude, crude, obnoxious, has known the O B – Old Bastard – for years, actually worked with him way back when. The body, in Cartwright’s upstairs bathroom, appears to be that of a Slough House operative. Lamb, as chief, is called on to identify it.
He is concerned about Cartwright, missing from his home even though his old, pristine Morris Minor is still in the garage. The O B is in the early stages of dementia and is forever on the lookout for stoats. They are everywhere in the community; he must take every precaution to avoid their scrutiny.
I’m not going to tell a lot about the storyline; pretty much anything said might act as a spoiler. Suffice to say, the investigation heads off to France, a commune, old foes and, through it all, a connection between the two main threads. Those who’ve already formed an attachment to Herron’s work and the Slough House mob will find Spook Street a natural progression. Those with no prior ken of his writing, his character development and his levity are in for a pleasant surprise.
Can there be humour in the dour world of espionage? You’d better believe it!