Mick Herron has published two books this month; a standalone thriller titled This Is What Happened and the fifth entry in the Jackson Lamb series, London Rules. Our bookseller Simon McDonald reviews both.
This Is What Happened by Mick Herron
When discussing his film Psycho, Alfred Hitchcock explained to Francois Truffaut that he “was directing the viewers… I was playing them, like an organ.” Which is precisely what Mick Herron does in This Is What Happened, shrewdly manipulating the reader, keeping them in suspense right up until the nail-biting finish. What seems at the start to be another in Herron’s long line of successful spy novels seamlessly transforms into an ingenious and intense psychological thriller that what will surely stand as one of the finest thrillers of 2018.
Twenty-six-year-old mail room employee Maggie Barnes is hiding in the lavatories of a 27-story London office building in the middle of the night. She has been recruited by MI5 agent Harvey Wells to upload spyware on the company’s computer network from a USB drive. She is untrained, totally inexperienced, and a nervous wreck; but she is empowered by her mission for Queen and Country, feels good to be doing something meaningful, having found herself isolated in the bustling metropolis of England’s capital. But her mission goes sideways, fast, just as readers would expect, and we are trained, based on years of reading the genre, to assume that her escape from the clutches of this “evil corporation” will be the book’s focus. Which is precisely when Herron pulls the rug out from readers’ feet.
This Is What Happened is not an espionage novel. It is a pared-down, sumptuous, enthralling, propulsive masterclass of suspense with a hard-boiled heart. It’s Hitchcockian, dark and menacing, and intricately-plotted. The kind of book you’ll blow through in a single night.
London Rules by Mick Herron
London Rules — the fifth book in the Jackson Lamb series — epitomises precisely why Mick Herron’s espionage novels are the new hallmarks of the genre. It is a rousing, provocative — and genuinely funny, at times — political thriller with a labyrinthine plot that, despite its villains remaining little more than sketches, excels thanks to its large, diverse cast of ‘Slow Horses’ whose personal travails and tribulations add depth to protagonists who are often little more than stock cardboard cutouts.
New readers are welcomed into the world of Slough House, where failed (dubbed incompetent) MI-5 agents are deposited to waste their days, twiddling their thumbs, doing mind-numbing busy work, but it’s readers who’ve been with these characters since Slow Horses who’ll get maximum enjoyment from London Rules. By now, the Slow Horses are entangled in a thick continuity soup, and each book in the series serves as an episodic interlude into their lives, the spotlight shared between various characters. This time around the balance is fairly even, which makes the story’s unravelling all the more nerve-wracking, because Herron has displayed a willingness to kill off characters before, and given the vastness of the cast he’s working with, one can’t help but feel it’s only a matter of time before further reductions are made.
London Rules deals with various plot threads that eventually, quite brilliantly, tie together. While Slow Horse Roddy Ho is targeted for assassination, a string of bizarre, seemingly random terrorist attacks rock the United Kingdom. Meanwhile, Regent’s Park’s First Desk, Claude Whelan, is struggling to protect the hapless prime minister from the MP who orchestrated the Brexit vote, who has his sights set on Number Ten; not to mention the MP’s wife, a tabloid columnist, who’s obliterating Whelan in print; then there’s the soon-to-be mayor of London the Prime Minister has allied himsel with, who has a dark, potentially devastating secret. Poor Whelan, dealing with all of this, while his own deputy, Lady Di Taverner, watches on, waiting for him to stumble. And while these machinations are certainly intriguing and propulsive, it’s how River Cartwright, Catherine Standish, JK Coe and all the others are managing the stresses of their personal lives, and the consequences of their previous missions, that prove the ultimate page-turning factor.
Mick Herron’s novels sit comfortably somewhere between le Carré and Bond: meticulously plotted, deliberately paced, fun, and not overly deep. London Rules is a terrific yarn filled with tension and surprises right to the end. Every instalment in this series is a pleasure to read.