Spook Street is the next instalment of Herron’s slow horses series of spy novels. They involve a motley group of failed spies left to rot in a neglected corner of London. These bungling spies know too much to be let go, but are too hopeless to go on active missions.
It’s a great concept for a series, allowing Herron to riff on the general themes and characters established in the first book. The story lines are quite clichéd, but each time the bungling failures outwit and outperform their betters. We all love the underdog, so that goes down well.
It also gives Herron opportunities to explore the corrupt world of the British establishment. The top dogs run the Secret Service, and their prime aim is to ensure their own survival. The country comes second. It’s just like the Conservative party. In fact there are oblique references to Boris Johnson and others in this series of novels, though Herron is careful to avoid libel.
These political and satirical elements add a dimension to the stories and make them more than just humdrum tales of mystery and suspense. The novels might be formulaic but Mick Herron is also able to add variety and interest by killing characters off and introducing new ones on a regular basis.
Spook Street begins with a terrorist bomb on the streets of London. It’s a clever opening, written with all the panache and imagination I have come to expect from this author. His characters are always interesting and the events and psychology are always thought through and presented vividly and in detail.
The central plot involves a former chief spy now in his dotage. He is the grandfather of one of the failures. River, the grandson, arrives to visit one day only to find a dead body in the bathroom and his grandfather holding a shotgun. It is the body of a would be assassin. His grandfather’s life is in danger. River decides to sort things out. After all who else can he trust? It could be some foreign agency out to silence the senile old man. But it might be the British Secret Service, trying to stop him giving away the nation’s secrets in his ramblings.
River finds a French railway ticket and a receipt from a cafe in the pockets of the dead assassin. He hides his grandfather with a former colleague, and sets off to France to find the answer.
It’s obviously quite an achievement to solve a case involving international espionage, if the only clue is a receipt from a café. So there’s quite a lot of suspension of disbelief needed. But that’s all right. It is fiction after all, and it’s all meant to be good fun.
Lamb, the boss of these failed heroes, takes a more central role in this episode. He’s a kind of comic James Bond, with Bond’s infinite capacity to out-think and outwit his opponents, but the body and attitude of a fat and lazy drunk. Bond might wear aftershave. Lamb just smokes and farts.
I enjoyed this book. It was much better than the previous which I felt descended into violence and derring-do. Spook Street does contain violence, and as always Herron writes about this convincingly, but the focus here is much more on character and psychology, which I find more interesting.