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Author of the Month

Name: Mick Herron

First Novel: Down Cemetery Road

Most Recent Book: Spook Street

'...all the praise I have heard about this series is justified and richly deserved. '

Synopsis:
River Cartwright, one of the ‘slow horses’ at Slough House looks after his grandfather, David who he affectionately calls ‘The O.B.’ (The Old Bastard), an obvious nick-name to those who knows David’s past as a spook. As Jackson Lamb says he is a ‘nasty old spook with blood on his hands’. But David’s mind has been wandering of late and he believes stoats are on his trail. Is this the symptoms of a man losing his mind or is he really in danger?

Jackson is called to Cartwright’s country house when his panic button has been activated. Lying on the floor of the bathroom is a man with his face shot off. This leads to a chain of events with echoes deep in the past of a man with a failing mind.

Meanwhile, Diana Taverner is in the background muddying the waters and covering her own back. But when the sins of the father come to the surface, the ripples will affect those far and wide.

Review:
I will be honest and say I am completely turned off by anything to do with spies. However, ever the intrepid reviewer, I was willing to put my prejudices aside having heard from several authors I admire, that Mick Herron’s ‘Slough House’ series was one of the best series in recent years. I guess, as a sceptic I make the perfect reviewer. So, when ‘Spook Street’ landed on my doormat I was determined to see what Herron could produce to win such rave reviews.

Although Herron’s novel involves spooks, it is combined with the element of a thriller. Herron is extraordinarily sublime at keeping a steady pace so that for me, Herron’s plot never flagged. In fact, there are several points in the book where he literally leaves his cast on a cliff-hanger, thus propelling me onwards despite the early hour of the morning and the need for sleep!

Herron fleshes out his characters without sacrificing pace and is extremely good at subtleties: Louisa fearful that an innocent drink with River could be seen as a date, Marcus’ fear of losing his family to his gambling, Coe’s withdrawal from the human race and Ho’s constant confirmation of his masculinity. All show that there is weakness and indecision beneath the bravado. This is conveyed without fanfare, but drifts under a shifting tide. Diana Taverner was also a wonderful character, devoid of all emotion and as slippery as an eel!

Even with Jackson Lamb, who provides most of the humour, some bordering on farce, you know behind it all, there is a much darker meaning and purpose. Lamb may break wind, belch and perform like the office clown at times, but you treat this man like a fool at your peril. I felt Lamb could be the lovechild of Reginald Hill’s creation, Andy Dalziel. As with Dalziel, Lamb doesn’t miss a beat.

‘Spook Street’ moves at a cracking pace and Herron perfectly conveys the dismay of the Security Services who try to keep a lid on this basket of slithering snakes. By the end of the book, Slough House will never be the same and has started a new chapter. Herron has made me feel I have finally broken my habit of shying away from spooks. For me, all the praise I have heard about this series is justified and richly deserved. I for one will be going back to read the previous three books in this series.

Reviewed by: C.S.

CrimeSquad Rating



Questionnaire

1) When someone thinks of a spy, they normally imagine James Bond or Tom Hiddleston – suave, sophisticated with a cut-glass accent. You have delivered Jackson Lamb who is ill-mannered, sexist, drinks far too much, belches and breaks wind. What was it about Lamb that attracted you to make him the leader of your ‘slow horses’?
Largely, what attracted me are the qualities you’ve just listed … My notes for the first book in the series, ‘Slow Horses’, simply describe him as “a drunken has-been”. Once I started to write him, though, he acquired a whole range of bad habits, with drunkenness one of the more endearing. But each of his vices are calculated on his part; a deliberate attempt to alienate and annoy those around him. I’m sure we’ve all known bosses like this.
2) Some years back it was mooted that the spy novel was dead and buried after the end of the Cold War. Now we have Putin and Trump, ‘So Called Islamic State’ and politics seems absurdly topsy-turvy these days. Do you think this kind of news we are seeing unfold is good for the genre?
The spy novel was never really dead and buried; it simply shifted its focus. But yes, it does seem as though current political realities are stoking paranoia and alarm to a degree that matches the nuclear-war fears of the 70s/80s. And while this is arguably “good for the genre”, I’d frankly rather we lived in an enlightened age of global peace and sanity, and had to rely on our imaginations for thrills.
3) ‘Spook Street’ is about the sins of the father and past misdeeds coming back to bite you. Do you think despite the alleged openness of the industry, that there is much in their history that is still to surface, if it ever does?
I would hope so. Openness and transparency are all very well, but I’m not convinced they’re entirely compatible with, say, national security.
4) You weave a wonderful sense of humour throughout ‘Spook Street’ without detracting from the suspense. Is this a fine line to walk without descending in to outright farce?
I’m very clear about what I’m writing: they’re thrillers. The humour arises from the way the stories are told, and the way characters respond and react to each other, but a lot of the subject matter is pretty dark. So I guess it’s a fine line, but it’s not one I’m acutely aware of while doing the actual writing: I rely on intuition, and try to hit whatever register seems appropriate, scene by scene.
5) Do you research your novels? Do you have people on the inside who guide you with your novels, or are the ‘spy’ aspects totally from your imagination?
I have no inside knowledge, no. I make stuff up, and research as little as possible.
6) You won the CWA Gold Dagger Award for ‘Dead Lions’. How did this feel with only your second spook novel?
Second spook book but my seventh novel, so I wasn’t exactly the new kid on the block. But being awarded the Dagger was, and remains, one of the proudest moments of my life.
7) For writers who are just starting out on their ‘novel journey’, what one piece of advice would you give?
Finish your book. Even if you become aware, halfway through writing it, that it won’t make the grade, and you’ve had a much better idea, finish it anyway. Knowing that you can finish what you’ve started is about the best confidence booster you can have.
8) Are you a fan of crime fiction in general? What would you say are the top three crime novels that have made a lasting impression on you and would take with you to a desert island?
It would be easier to pick my top hundred. On the understanding that I’d give a different answer tomorrow, or even an hour from now, here’s three:

Uncivil Seasons by Michael Malone. Opening sentences: “Two things don’t happen very often in Hillston, North Carolina. We don’t get much snow, and we hardly ever murder one another.” How could you not read on?

To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee. The greatest courtroom scenes ever written, and much else besides.

Gorky Park by Martin Cruz Smith. Still the gold standard for the thriller.

Author Photo copyright: Tim Barrow