Written by Mick Herron — Set in the a murky, satirised world of espionage, Mick Herron’s most recent novels, Slow Horses and Dead Lions, featured a fictional branch of MI5 called Slough House whose employees were only one more screw-up from losing their jobs. The books were uniformly well received, and got five-star ratings here on Crime Fiction Lover. What’s more, Dead Lions picked up the CWA Goldsboro Gold Dagger for best novel in 2013.
Herron has made the brave decision to do something different this time around and Nobody Walks is not a follow-on to his previous two books. While it shares the same setting – London’s espionage community – the tone is noticeably different. Tom Bettany has been drifting across the continent, rudderless and doing temporary jobs, mostly manual labour, ever since his wife died a decade ago. He is in France working at a slaughterhouse when a young lady leaves a voicemail saying that his son, Liam, has died.
It digs up some memories for Bettany. For years he worked undercover for MI5 helping to bring down Irish Republican terrorists. After that, he was a ‘dog’ in the service, using violence and torture to get results when other means failed. Maybe it was this that made him hard and aloof or maybe that’s just the way he was. Either way, a wall grew up between him and his family, and Liam believed his father’s behaviour brought about his mother’s cancer. The pair became estranged after her death.
Returning to London, Bettany learns his son’s death is considered an accident. Liam had a regular cannabis habit, and it wasn’t uncommon for him to smoke while standing on his flat’s makeshift balcony. He appears to have fallen one night while stoned. At his son’s funeral, Bettany meets Flea, the girl who left the message on his phone. She was Liam’s only real friend and worked with him at a computer games company.
Back at Liam’s flat, simple investigative techniques reveal that Liam couldn’t have been alone on the balcony, and accident becomes murder. Bettany begins the search for his son’s supplier, but before he really has time to make any inroads he receives a visit from his old department warning him off visiting Liam’s boss. Is such a blatant threat actually meant to get him to investigate the games designer, or is it a very subtle double-bluff.
Before long Bettany is a wanted man himself. What’s left of the Irish Republican movement in London wants bloody revenge, and the gangsters fighting for control of the capital’s cannabis market want him out of the way too. What’s more, all sides are having their strings pulled by the highest levels of MI5. Our hero will have to get his hands dirty before he catches his son’s killers. Fortunately, he has no problem with that.
While this is certainly not a grim read, the tone of the book is appropriate to the subject matter, and the satirical humour present in earlier efforts is largely missing. However, we still have the labyrinthine machinations of our security services that Herron writes about and he expertly exposes here. This is a more human story – a tragedy, actually – and Bettany is given no easy ride. The ending is unexpected, and not a happy one. Tom is a violent man, and even in grief, he cannot escape this.
CFL Rating: 5 Stars