Roar Of The Lamb:
How can one not want to read a book that begins like this: “The owl flew screaming from the barn, its wingtips bright with flame. For a moment, silhouetted against the blank sky, it was a dying angel, scorched by its own divinity, and then it was just a sooty husk, dropping like an anvil into the nearby trees. He wondered if it would set the wood ablaze. But the trees were thickly layered with snow, and any spark that survived the fall would be smothered on contact. He turned back to the barn in time to see the roof collapse, and a cloud of dust burst upwards. Kind of beautiful, if you liked that sort of thing. This must be what got arsonists stoked.”
Such lyricism in a spy thriller is quite rare, which is what makes Mick Herron’s books so readable. Joe Country is the sixth in the Slough House series, for which Herron created the unmatched character of Jackson Lamb. The man is sharper than a saw, rude and autocratic, with disgusting person habits, but also fiercely protective of his flock of joes (intelligence agents).
For those who haven’t discovered Herron yet, Slough House is the decrepit place (“The building is a bad tooth set in a failing mouth. Here is where nothing happens: nothing to see here. Move along”) where disgraced MI5 spies are sent to spend the rest of their careers in obscurity and mind-numbing frustration. They are mockingly referred to as “slow horses” by the rest of the intelligence community. Lamb keeps a beady eye on the bunch of losers, and seems to know more about them than they can imagine. But then, he seems to know everything about everybody, without even taking his filthy feet off his table. There’s JK Coe, who is even more dysfunctional than the normal joe, Catherine Standish is fighting a booze addiction, Shirley Dander keeps cocaine in her pocket to help her get through the days, Louisa Guy is still mourning the death of her lover, Roddy Ho has his own secret life and River Cartwright broods over the mess partially caused by the death of his grandfather, an ex-spy (called Old Bastard by everyone) and the reappearance of his father Frank Harkness, ex-CIA, now a gun for hire. The latest misfit to be dumped at Slough House is Lech Wicinski, who is accused of having child porn on his office laptop, though he has no clue how it got there.
Meanwhile, at the MI5 headquarters at Regent’s Park, the new boss, Diana “Lady Di” Taverner, is handed a big problem, and much to her annoyance, the slow horses have got to the scene first. When Clare, the wife of Louisa’s dead lover, approaches her to hunt for her missing teenage son Lucas, she finds herself rushing to Wales in the midst of a terrible snow storm. When her phone goes off the radar, her colleagues follow to find and rescue her.
At the core of the crisis is a member of the royal family (this taken from a true incident), whose participation in a horrific case of sexual abuse is witnessed by Lucas. Frank Harkness and his crew of brutal mercenaries descend on the bitterly cold Welsh town, where they come up against the unexpected courage and fighting spirit of the Slough House gang.
Lamb, smarting over the blood bath Frank Harkness had caused in the past, is looking for a way to make him pay for his crimes. Herron’s telling of the story is rich in detail—you can almost feel the chill of the freezing weather that brings the country to a halt. The dangers the slow horses face are as much from the East European thugs as from Regent’s Park mavens.
The plot is intricate, the pace unrelenting, the dialogue witty (Lamb’s one-liners and put-downs are killers)– there is not a single dull moment in Joe Country. The novel makes many other masters of Cold War era espionage thrillers seem stodgily old school.
Joe Country can be read as a standalone novel, but it continues from where the last book London Rules ended, so it might help to start the series with the first, Slow Horses, and work one’s way through the lot; it would greatly enhance the enjoyment of this story.
By Mick Herron
Publisher: Soho Crime