Dead Lions is the second in Mick Herron’s series set around Slough House, a down at heel repository of MI5 agents. Each agent exiled to Slough House has previously failed in some sort of way, and as punishment faces a life spent in the futile collection and analysis of meaningless data. The alternative is to resign.
Mick Herron introduces interesting characters to Slough House, each with a credible back story. Some have reappeared in this second volume, and it seems likely that Catherine Standish, Jackson Lamb, River Cartwright and Roderick Ho will form the backbone of the series, though Herron is not afraid of developing characters in some detail and then killing them off, which does add to the suspense.
Standish is a former alcoholic, written off but talented; Jackson is the boss – scruffy and lazy he nevertheless honours his comrades and has a knack of seeing through to the nub of any problem. Cartwright’s retired grandfather was an agent too, and River has been left as a “Slow Horse” because of the treachery of a colleague, who hung him out to dry. Finally Ho, somewhere on the autistic spectrum according to one of the characters, lacks empathy and generally fails in most human relationships, but is a whiz with a computer. A bit of stereotyping I suppose in these pen portraits, but Herron does them well and they are interesting because of their foibles, and the compromising situations these put them in.
Dead Lions begins with the mysterious death of a former Berlin based agent. Jackson Lamb decides to investigate, to honour the life of this former colleague whose death has been wrongly put down to heart failure. On further investigation Lamb becomes worried that there is a threat to national security, and the Slow Horses (from Slough House – get it?) become involved in the chase.
The blurb quotes the Crime Writers’ Association, which describes Dead Lions as a “send up of the classic British spy novel”. It certainly does have its fair share of mordant wit, and this makes the book very enjoyable. Herron is a dab hand at running several different story threads and skipping from one to the next via a series of cliffhangers so that the reader is invited ever onwards into the world of the novel. These are not all action based. At times it’s the development of the character or the relationship that we want to go on to discover, so there’s a lot more subtlety here than in many books of this type.
I really enjoyed this book, and hope eventually to read the next in the series, though not for a while. The conclusion to this was exciting, but there were moments – I won’t describe them here – when the actions are so clearly of the genre that it goes beyond satire, into pastiche, I think. These were only moments though.
I suppose this kind of writing is always formulaic in its way. Dead Lions as the second in a series is showing some formulaic elements, which is why I might leave it a while before trying the next in the series, but it is a very enjoyable book, both exciting and funny, and I recommend it without hesitation!