Written by Mick Herron — With Nobody Walks, Mick Herron did something a little different to his previous efforts, though still within the espionage genre, albeit tangentially. Now he returns to the fictional world of his Slough House series and its slow horses.
You may recall that Slough House is where MI5 sends its failures, screw-ups and embarrassments. It is still headed by the fearsome Jackson Lamb, an ex-Joe (street operative) who knows where all the bodies are buried – indeed, he put some of them there. Next in seniority is Catherine Standish who grieves her old boss and struggles with sobriety. Below her are River Cartwright, who probably hangs onto his job thanks to family connections, and Louisa Guy, whose last attempt at regaining good favour ended with the death of her boyfriend, Min. Next are two new faces, Marcus Longridge (gambling debts) and Shirley Dander (cocaine addiction). At the bottom of the pile is Roddy Ho, a computer geek who hasn’t actually done anything wrong but is an insufferable arsehole.
Real Tigers has a great prologue which serves as something of a guide to the Slough House books themselves. Paul Lowell stands on a rooftop, overlooking the City of London. This father for justice, dressed as Spiderman, is ready to make a stand against divorce lawyers everywhere. The contact he made on the web is walking towards him dressed as Batman. But instead of exchanging pleasantries or war stories about the Family Court, he is thrown from the roof. In Herron’s books there is always a patsy who doesn’t quite know what is going on.
The story proper begins some time later when Catherine Standish is abducted one evening as she leaves work. Sean Donovan is an old flame from her drinking days. An ex-soldier just out of prison, he wants to chat about their past. Standish knows something isn’t right, but her calls to Lamb go straight to voicemail, and before she can escape she’s thrown into a van.
The next morning Cartwright gets sent a photo of Standish gagged and bound and a rendezvous is set. Rather than following protocol – he is a slow horse after all – he goes to the meet without back-up. He is told he has one hour to get MI5’s private dossier on the prime minister or Standish will die. His attempt inevitably fails, but not before coming to the attention of Diana ‘Lady Di’ Taverner, second desk at MI5 and head of ops. She didn’t get there being a wallflower and has her eyes on the top job, currently held by Dame Ingrid Tearney.
Kearney, meanwhile, has her hands full with the new home secretary, Peter Judd (a fantastic fictional creation that is so obviously meant to be Boris Johnson that Herron hasn’t so much nailed Johnson as crucified him to the wall), whose ambitions lie at 10 Downing Street and who knows having a tame director of MI5 will give him an edge.
Judd delights in telling Tearney that her service has been compromised by a ‘tiger team’. In fact, it is his own men from the private security sector who have kidnapped one of her spies and persuaded another to commit treason. But tigers can turn, can in fact be (and hence the title) real tigers, something Judd is forced to face when one of them is dumped dead on the street outside the restaurant he’s dining at. Then it becomes a free for all. Judd is no longer the master of his own destiny, Tearney and Taverner are engaged in a battle for the top, Lamb has to fight to keep Slough House afloat, and his slow horses are battling for their lives.
Herron has written another cracker. He won the CWA Goldsboro Gold Dagger in 2013 for Dead Lions, and it’s not too much of a stretch of the imagination to think he might win it again. All the things that made the other books in the series such a success are present again. Machiavellian plotting, sly humour, characters so compromised but so well-drawn you won’t be sure if he wants them to win or lose, and topical satire – this time the thorny issue of extraordinary rendition.
All in all Real Tigers is another dazzling effort and I cant wait to read what Mick Herron writes next.
You can read our review of another great Slough House novel, Slow Horses, here.
CFL Rating: 5 Stars