Mick Heron – London Rules

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The London Rules. 

One – cover your arse. Two – don’t get caught. Three – stick together. Don’t forget four –  look after yourself.

These rules are not written down, but everyone at Slough House knows and understands them.

Slough House is an office block in a grimy part of London where failed spies are sent to eke out their days in miserable paper work. Jackson Lamb’s inimitable gang of hopeless misfits are the Slow Horses, named after the office. They are too stupid or drunk to be allowed on the streets, but they know too much to be let go.

Roddy Ho can make a computer sing to his tune, but he’s easy meat for a North Korean siren named Kim. Roddy is as self aware as the computer on his desk, a hero in his own solitary lunchtime, and a first class geek.

But he’s not the worst. Roddy’s social skills are matched by the rest of Lamb’s crazy gang. JK Coe, the silent killer, pondering his own psychopathy. Shirley, cradling the last wrap of coke tucked deep into her pocket, and scurrying off to anger management class. Catherine Standish, a reformed alcoholic, terrified of the wine bottles that stand in ranks in her local supermarket.

These eccentric characters are apt to wreak havoc wherever they go. They are the Smiley’s People of the 21st century, but it’s not the communists now. These stories share our current obsessions: terrorism, conspiracy theories and political corruption. They bring the spy genre right up to date.

In London Rules there is Gimball, a right wing MP with a populist agenda and a penchant for dressing up in his wife’s frocks, and Zafar Jaffrey, a muslim MP with the common touch and a brother off in Syria with ISIS. A white van load of North Korean terrorists is the glue that sticks these two together, and it sucks in Lamb and the rest of the misfits from his gang.

As usual over at Head Office the big cheeses are busy fighting to be top dog. They don’t have the time to save the country. That falls to our band of irregular heroes. But it’s never simple, and there’s a lot of broken crockery along the way.

These books are funny and well written, with pacy stories and witty dialogue. The characters are old friends from the earlier novels and have various idiosyncracies. But they all share their cynicism and lack of manners. Jackson is the worst, farting and swearing his way thorough the book, itching various unmentionable parts of his anatomy and downing whisky by the tumblerful.

This is the fifth in the Jackson Lamb series of spy thrillers. The first of these, Slow Horses, was  shortlisted for the Ian Fleming Steel Dagger award, whilst the second, Dead Lions, won the CWA Goldsboro Gold Dagger award.

It’s not surprising that these books have been so successful. It’s a great formula, full of wit and violence. Herron engages in modern political issues with villains like Gimball and Jaffery that we can almost, but not quite, recognise from today’s news stories.

But the characters verge on caricature and like all books written to a formula they can begin to pall.

I’ve read all of these so far, and enjoyed them all too, but it’s a case of diminishing returns. It seems like Herron has attempted to ginger up this episode by making Lamb even more gross and unpleasant, but it’s a step too far really. I lost count of the number of farts, or the times Lamb was to be found scratching his arse.

I’ll probably read the next episode too, but to be honest that’s only because I know my wife will buy a copy. She loved this one.

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