Fifth Lamb novel from 'new king of spy thriller'

Photo: Getty Images
Photo: Getty Images

Peter Stupples reviews London Rules by Mick Herron. Published by John Murray Publishers.

Aficionados will welcome this fifth Jackson Lamb novel from Mick Herron, who is described by The Mail on Sunday as the "new king of the spy thriller''.

The group of secret service agents (wayward psychos) who make up Lamb's staff in Slough House - among them pedantic Catherine Standish, ex-druggie Shirley Dander, naive man about town and women Roddy Ho - have all performed in previous Herron novels.

They become involved in trying to understand, and then forestall, a series of terrorist attacks in England.

At first the terrorists are assumed to be linked to Islamic State but their affiliation turns out to have a more topical origin.

A Slough House operative becomes involved in a honey trap, which quickly plunges his anarchic colleagues into a rapidly accelerating series of catastrophes.

Their unerring natural instincts to preserve their reputations and thwart the ambitious intentions of the terrorists drive the narrative to its eventual dramatic conclusion.

To say more would spoil the enjoyment of the reader that rests on the skill of the writer in the gradual reveal.

Jackson Lamb is the uncouth, chain-smoking, whisky-drinking, foul-mouthed, un-PC, farting ringmaster/magician, always a step ahead of his motley team, saving them from themselves, yet giving them their head.

Their antics constantly unnerve their M15 masters in Regent's Park (not the Zoo but the "zoo''). Lamb is given the best lines in the games of wit and repartee that enliven the tedium of a normal day at the office in Slough House, a tedium frequently shattered by staccato passages of action, violence and the settlement of scores.

As this is 2018, we are reminded of the even more bizarre real worlds of Donald Trump and Brexit, of British politicians more concerned with polishing their somewhat unsavoury egos than managing their portfolios.

Honey traps catch the unwary.

Blackmail weaves its slimy trail in government, the press, the secret services.

The dirt is only too easy to get and fear of it being dished can change careers and even cost lives.

Herron writes on the edge of parody.

This is not the suave world of George Smiley, where experienced spies pit their wits against each other to prevent the Cold War turning up the heat.

Herron's heroes and heroines (half the staff of Sough House are tough, clever, resourceful women - unlike the world of Le Carre), find themselves involved in processes they don't fully understand, turning chance to their advantage or even following wrong trails.

The spy novel has not essentially changed but the world in which the antagonists operate has. The terrorism of the 21st century involves undeserving members of the public becoming embroiled in violence that is random.

The antagonists no longer fight wars with frontiers but abuse the masses of the innocent to express their disaffection with a world that has dealt them a poor hand and they want revenge against that fate.

No wonder Herron's humour is black and farcical, fitting for the times. We all need a laugh as we don our hazmat suits.

Peter Stupples, now living in Wellington, used to teach at the University of Otago.

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