A spy thriller that is also a very funny book might seem a bit of an oddity, not to mention a rarity. The film world has run any number of spy spoofs but I can’t think of too many successful ones in print. But then up pops Mick Herron, claiming almost a complete genre for himself: John le Carre with jokes.
London Rules is the fifth book in Herron’s Jackson Lamb series, a series that has garnered him both a considerable following and considerable acclaim. I have, admittedly, come very late to this party but after reading his latest offering I have a feeling I will be exploring Herron’s earlier work.
The home of Herron’s motley collection of spooks is Slough House in East London, a sort of depository for misfits who have failed in MI5 but who cannot, for various reasons, be entirely removed from the payroll. In lead spy Jackson Lamb’s case, this is because he knows something about the past exploits of his superiors which make it impossible for him to be sacked.
His crew includes Shirley Dander, an addict struggling to quit her cocaine habit; Catherine Standish, a (usually) recovering alcoholic; Roderick Ho, an IT specialist with a staggering ego and equally staggering inability to see himself as others see him; and the mysterious J.K. Coe who spends his life plugged into his iPod and says almost nothing, except when he proves to be the sharpest of his colleagues. There are others, but you will by now be getting the drift.
The prince of all these characters, however, is Lamb, a man of completely gross bearing and habits. Flatulent, chain-smoking, drunk and politically incorrect to the “nth” degree, Lamb has precious few positive attributes bar his ability to analyse situations better than anyone else and, as a result, be in the right place at the right time. In short, he is exasperating but indispensable, brilliant (occasionally by accident) and brutal, not to mention a master of the put-down and the insult.
I laughed aloud at his besting of his superiors and his mastery of the not-so-subtle insult. In the middle of an attempted dressing down by a senior from MI5, “From the still open drawer he produced a bottle and two glasses. He put them on the desk, paused, and put one of the glasses away again. Into the other he poured an absurd measure of Scotch.”
Characters need a plot and London Rules is a spy thriller. The book opens with a marauding gang shooting up a village, which is followed by an explosive being thrown into a tank of penguins. There is also a bomb on a train and an attempt on the life of a prominent populist politician. Are these apparently disparate events connected? And if so, where will the next attack come? Could there be a clue to the modus operandi in MI5’s own files?
All of this comes closer to home in Slough House when an attempt is made on the life of the wonderful Roderick, as he follows a gaming quest through London streets and muses on his own greatness: “There are those who regard Roderick Ho as a one-trick wonder; a king of the keyboard, sure, but less adept in other areas of life, such as making friends, being reasonable, and ironing T-shirts. But they haven’t seen him in action. They haven’t seen him on the prowl.”
So immersed is he in his self-eulogising that he even fails to notice that a car has attempted to run him over. When a passing Shirley pushes him to the ground out of the way of the car, his only thought is “what a prize she’d cost him, all for the sake of a quick grope”.
Herron’s plotting is in one sense absurd but it is also very clever. His characters are hugely entertaining and his dialogue is exceptionally sharp and funny. In fact, the whole book is superbly written. And gross though Lamb is in almost every conceivable way, we side with him because he is cleverer than his MI5 superiors and because at heart we prefer the colourful Lamb to his anodyne tormentors.
The underdog bettering the topdog is always a pleasure. For readers well-versed in British politics, there is also the added delight of recognising real-life politicians in Herron’s thinly disguised fictional ones but that is an entirely additional bonus.
I can pay London Rules no greater compliment than to say that I shall be looking up Herron’s previous four titles but my recommendation would be to start at the beginning of the series with Slow Horses – it took me a while to get into the characters and tone of London Rules because I was unsure what to expect.
Oh, and the title, London Rules? The first one is, of course, “cover your arse”.
Author: Mick Herron
Publisher: John Murray, spy thriller