Joe Country

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Written by Mick Herron — Summer brings with it the sixth novel in Mick Herron’s acclaimed series about the MI6 cast-offs and screw-ups who together make up the personnel of Slough House.

Jackson Lamb has been the central character in the series, but this time there are a couple of new additions to a cast whose regular members are starting to feel like old friends. Hannah Weiss is a BND triple agent, whom MI6 foolishly believe they have turned, and Lech Wicinski is the poor dupe the German’s compromised to protect her cover. Weiss and Wicinski were both introduced in last Autumn’s novella The Drop. I noted in my review last year that The Drop was probably not an ideal entry point for newcomers since it is tonally different from the novels – less humour, considerably more downbeat. With Joe Country, Herron has taken the brave decision to continue in that vein.

The opening chapter takes place after the main action in the book, and sees two bad actors walking away from a fire they’ve set. Their conversation turns to the bodies they’ve left behind, and one is revealed to be that of someone from Slough House. From the start we know someone is going to die, but Herron doesn’t reveal who until the very end but you know what whoever it is, it will leave you upset. I struggle to remember a series of books where I have cared about the characters so much.

Louisa Guy is one of the slow horses, as the agents are called, at Slough House. Her work is a never-ending drudge made worse by the absence, through his death, of her colleague and lover Min Harper. When Min’s widow gets in touch asking Louisa to help locate her missing teenage son, Lucas, its partly guilt about their affair which gets her to take immediate leave from work and head into Wales searching for him.

The Slough House novels all have a similar structure. Initially the cast are all brought together affording Herron the opportunity to make some jokes and acute observations about how office workers relate to one another before some external event – a secret services cock-up, or a terrorist attack for example – forces the reluctant spies out of their hideaway into the action, or ‘Joe Country’.

This time it’s the appearance of a rogue ex-CIA operative at River Cartwright’s grandfather’s funeral that kicks the team into gear. Frank Harkness is a wanted man throughout Europe, but his hand in the death of one of the team previously makes it personal for Jackson Lamb. For if the chronically drunk, rude, intemperate Lamb has one rule, it’s this: we look after our own.

Their search leads them eventually to Wales, and into the same snow storm that Louisa is stuck in as she searches for Lucas. To explain how the two cases are linked would be to spoil a very cleverly worked out plot.

But for all the clever plotting, satirical nods and winks about the state of Britain today and all of Herron’s hilarious one-liners, what really stands out are his exploration and depiction of the themes of loss and connection. Looking back, perhaps they’ve been evident from the very beginning of the series. Everyone in the crew has had their career’s stalled, and Cartwright’s grandfather’s emerging dementia and frailty have been a major plot strand before. But here, with a member dying and Louisa risking her life to keep some connection with Min, they reach their apotheosis.

Joe Country is an understated classic, easily on a par with last year’s much lauded November Road by Lou Berney. And with added Jackson Lamb.

John Murray

CFL Rating: 5 Stars

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