[Jackson Lamb, the head of Slough House, has been called to a murder scene.]
In the hallway a technician was dusting the bannister for fingerprints, looking every inch an extra in a TV show. Star power was provided by the blonde in the black suit talking on her mobile. Her hair was bound in a severe back-knot, but if that was an attempt to dim her wattage, it failed; she could have painted a beard on and still sucked up all the local attention.
When she saw Lamb she finished her conversation and slotted her phone into her jacket pocket… Her eyes were blue, her manner all business. But she didn’t offer her hand.
‘You’re Lamb,’ she told him.
‘Thanks,’ he said. ‘This time of night I’m plagued by doubts.’
‘We’ve not met. I’m Emma Flyte.’
commentary: Mick Herron’s Slow Horses books burst into my consciousness late last year with Real Tigers, the third in the series: this one is the fourth, just out now.
And yes, it is just as good: funny, full of memorable characters, some great situations, and an all-too convincing picture of the security services in modern-day England. As when a security breach in 1992 is mentioned:
‘Ninetytwo?’ This was the defence minister. ‘That’s ancient history.’I even forgive Herron for the character called The Moira – ‘they’d taken to calling her [that]; one of those unplanned habits that foster relationships… ‘Moira, anyway’ she said. ‘That’s an oldies’ name. Your aunt’s called Moira.’ She’s later described as ‘Grendel’s mother through there’.
Whelan suspected he was trying to remember who’d been in government then; whether this was something that could be passed off on the other party.
The plot is labrynthine, clever and scarey, but as ever it’s the one-liners that amuse. Shirley has a new hairdo:
‘It makes me look like a young Mia Farrow’ she said, ‘if she’d been dark instead of blonde.’Jackson Lamb, a towering figure, one of the finest creations in modern literature, always gets the best lines.
‘Yeah’ said Lamb ‘And if she’d eaten Frank Sinatra instead of marrying him.’
‘You’re not having a panic attack are you?’ Lamb asked kindly.Talking of a colleague:
‘Does the thought of having one frighten you?’
‘We speak on the phone, we sometimes meet up. Every now and then she tries to have me killed.’ He shifted a buttock. ‘I can’t remember if I’ve ever been married, but it sounds like that’s what it’s like.’Speaking of one character’s ambitions:
‘[He was worried about an issue] that might scupper his chances of getting to be First Desk, right? These days they appear on Newsnight, reviewing Bond films. But back then, the whole secrecy thing was more of an issue.’I would read about Jackson and his team even if there was no plot, but I did foresee some of the twists in this one – which I didn’t in the first couple of the books. Herron specializes in making the reader feel clever for guessing, then adding another twirl to take you by surprise. There was less of that this time. (Or maybe I’m getting cleverer? – Nah.)
‘He never wanted to be First Desk.’
‘Uh-huh. And Buzz Lightyear never wanted to be first man on the Moon.’
‘I don’t think you mean Lightyear.’
But truly this is a marvellous series, and anyone who likes spy stories, or being entertained, will enjoy them.