Written by Mick Herron — The Jackson Lamb series of satirical espionage novels have gained an impressive readership, and garnered considerable critical praise. Set in contemporary London, they feature a group of MI6 outcasts who, despite their failings, somehow manage to get their superiors out of the fire. Beginning with Slow Horses, the success of these novels is due partly to our enjoyment of seeing the underdog succeed, but also their laugh-out-loud comic moments. The Drop (The Marylebone Drop in the US) is a short novella rather than a full novel, and abuts only tangentially on to the series. As such, newcomers won’t find their enjoyment of the book lessened by their unfamiliarity while veterans of the series will find the occasional familiar name sparks happy memories of the previous novels.
John Bachelor’s career in MI6 is nearly at an end – a career remarkable only for its lack of remarkableness, it could be said. He’s never earned the responsibility to run agents in the field, but has never messed up enough to end up in the dog house. His one success was to turn Hannah Weiss into a double agent. She is employed by the civil service the UK and by the German secret service the BND. Now MI6 believe Hannah is feeding only the titbits of intelligence back to Germany that they want her too, while at the same time reporting to them what is happening within the BND.
Even this success has turned out bittersweet for Bachelor. The powers that be in Regent’s Park haven’t allowed him to be Weiss’ handler. That responsibility went to one of Lady Di Taverner’s pet favourites, Richard Pynne. Bachelor has been left to see out his time on the milk round, playing nursemaid to London’s retired spooks.
One of those spooks is Solomon Dortmund, an ageing German defector, and a veteran of the Cold War. Solomon might be getting on in years, but his mind is sharp and his spycraft has not been forgotten. Solomon has just witnessed a drop, the passing of secret information between agents, in a Marylebone cafe. Like a good spook, he passes it on to his handler.
Bachelor would like nothing more than to forget the matter and focus on more pressing needs such as where he’s going to live now that his divorce is through, but Solomon has even discovered the name of one of the agents – Peter Kahlmann. What harm can it do, thinks Bachelor, to search for Kahlmann off the books? It will placate Solomon, and who knows, if it leads somewhere, what it might do for his career…
As it turns out, it can do plenty of harm. Bachelor lacks the imagination to look beyond the surface of Solomon’s concerns, and Pynne turns out to be the loser of a battle of wits with the BND that he doesn’t even realise is happening.
The author’s Jackson Lamb novels have been rightly praised for their combination of topical satire and drama, winning several awards in the process. If you are new to his work though, this might not be the best place to start. Slough House is mentioned only in passing and Lamb, Cartwright et al don’t feature in this short novella. The outrageous humour – such a feature of the novels – is also missing and the mood of the book is more in tune with Mick Herron’s recent standalone novels, This is What Happened and Nobody Walks.
What does carry over into The Drop is the portrayal of an intelligence agency beset by complacency, ineptitude and cynicism. Careers, even lives, are discarded with nary a second thought. The topical satire comes from Weiss’ dispatch to the Brexit department, and the distinctly unflattering comparison made between the British and German secret services. It’s hard not to read the story as a metaphor for Brexit as a whole.
If you’re already a paid up member of the Herron fan club, then The Drop is a brief but essential delight, and serves to whet the appetite for the next novel. If not, perhaps start with Slow Horses.
John Murray/Soho Press
CFL Rating: 4 Stars