Every big organisation needs a place to put their screw-ups, and Slough House is where MI5 puts its ‘Slow Horses’. These are the disgraced or incompetent spies the service wants rid of, wearing them down with an endless series of demeaning jobs such as data entry or passport checking until they pull the pin themselves, and resign.
We tour the stable… Roderick Ho is a socially awkward computer geek. Min Harper and Louisa Guy share an office and a tentative relationship, each wondering if they’ll be screwed over by the other if the chance to get back to promised land, at MI5’s Regent’s Park HQ, arises. River Cartwright finds his position at the bottom of the espionage totem pole doubly difficult to accept as his father was a service legend who still insists on teaching River elementary stagecraft during their nightly fireside chats. Catherine Standish remains an effective operator but her alcoholism killed off her career even though she is on the wagon. Marcus Longridge and Shirley Dander are the newest recruits.
Above them all is the legendary, fearsome Jackson Lamb, a giant slob of a man whose enormous appetite for booze, takeaway curries and cigarettes is only matched by his terrible manners. However, beneath the slovenly, sarcastic exterior sits a keen, cunning mind. Two events occur to shatter the humdrum routine of Slough House. Louisa and Min are offered an olive branch by HQ. A Russian Oligarch, Arkady Pashkin, is visiting London and the service wants to open friendly relations with a man who may become a the president of Russia one day. If the couple can babysit him during his stay then a return to the fold may be possible.
Meanwhile something extraordinary has happened to Lamb that has got the horses worried. He’s actually doing some work. A retired spy, Dickie Bow, has died on a bus going to Oxford, of a suspected heart attack. But distant alarm bells have started ringing in Lamb’s brain, and they peal louder when he finds Bow’s mobile stuffed down the back of his seat with an unsent text containing one word: Cicadas.
To normal people a cicada is an insect that can live underground for more than a decade before emerging fully mature. To Jackson Lamb, it means a sleeper cell of foreign agents. Or it might indicate that Alexander Popov is active – the feared Russian spymaster of legend. The service can’t decide whether this man exists, or is just a myth invented by the Russians to keep MI5 agents chasing their tails. Either way it’s time for the Slow Horses to saddle up and do some real work. So far so spy versus spy, but then there’s the crime angle. Is the oligarch Arkady Pashkin planning some kind of heist in the UK?
Dead Lions works as both a comedy and a crime/espionage thriller. Central to its success is the character of Jackson Lamb. The author Mick Herron leaves both the reader and the other Slow Horses very much in the dark as to this man’s thoughts and motivations, revealing just enough to keep us hooked. The plot is as twisted as any great spy novel should be. At the same time the writing is so clear and the narrative so cleverly conducted that I didn’t have to re-read any of it understand what was going on. Recommended without hesitation for anyone who enjoys a fast-paced, funny read that folds crime fiction and espionage into one.
CFL Rating: 5 Stars