2nd April 2021
London Rules is the fifth in the series of Mick Herron’s modern spy stories based around the occupants of Slough House, a rundown Secret Service office situated near the Barbican in London. (It has been followed by Joe Country and Slough House, the latter published earlier this year).
Slough House is where the Service’s “slow horses” are sent: those who have blotted their career copybooks due to a variety of operational or personal failings and who are (seemingly permanently) punished by being assigned to a series of mind-numbing clerical tasks. In this volume, the small cast list includes a coke-snorter with anger management issues, a probable psychopath, a troubled alcoholic and a narcissistic IT nerd. The head of the team – if this group of misfits could be so described – is the compelling and appalling Jackson Lamb.
Lamb has a (as yet largely untold) backstory of running agents – “joes” – behind the Cold War’s Iron Curtain. He also has a razor-sharp mind which is equally adept at addressing the operational issues at hand and negotiating the appropriate political strategy with which to deal with the Service’s hierarchy – notably the Second Desk, Diana Taverner – at the headquarters in Regent’s Park.
On the other side of the balance sheet, Lamb – another serious drinker and apparently never without a cigarette either in his mouth or tucked behind an ear – might be described as having a Starred First in Political Uncorrectness with a notable specialism in antisocial office and personal habits. He is a modern anti-hero par excellence and I found myself lapping up the one-sided discussions that he has with anyone who strays within his conversational range, whether these be staff, superiors or the “Dogs” from the Service’s internal security department.
Those around him are irresistibly complicit in Lamb’s awfulness. Hence, after Lamb has spoken to his secretary Catherine Standish in distinctly un-PC terms about Devon Welles (who is black and in the room), Welles asks, “Is he like this all the time”. “I expect so”, replies the admirable Catherine, “I don’t work weekends”. We smile at the line and, in doing so, are also complicit.
The central story in London Rules concerns a series of terrorist outrages and the slow horses’ role in not only tracking down the cell responsible but also identifying the origins of the terrorists’ strategy. The action rattles along as, needless to say, Lamb and his colleagues remove themselves from the narrow constraints of their desk jobs to play lead roles (not always intentionally) in the field. (On one occasion, the means by which they escape from Slough House might be expected to lead to disciplinary consequences).
And, in the field, the use of guns has its consequences, of course. Lamb is told how someone had been shot in the head, at point blank range, with a rifle. “Yeah. I saw the photos. They look like Jackson Pollock threw up on a pizza”.
At the same time, London Rules has its quieter moments. Herron is good at setting the scene in the capital’s daily routine. His descriptions of the changing times of the day can be lyrical, almost poetic: “When dusk comes at last, it comes from the corners, where it’s been waiting all day, and seeps through Slough House the way ink seeps through water; first casting tendrils, then becoming smoky black cloud, and at last being everywhere, the way it always wants to be. Its older brother night has broader footfall, louder voice, but dusk is the family sneak, a hoarder of secrets”.
I suspect that Herron enjoys drawing his readers into his players’ characterisations. It is not too difficult to identify on whom the politician Peter Judd, who appears in an early story, might be based. Others are perhaps composites, including London Rules’s populist (and cross-dressing) MP and his right-wing tabloid columnist wife. Elsewhere, Herron is not shy about offering his views on the current state of the world; his contempt for Donald Trump, for example, is clearly evident.
When considered as a whole, Herron’s stories convey a sense of evolution within the group whom Jackson Lamb oversees. The occupants of Slough House change over time: of those who started out in the first book – Slow Horses in 2010 – not all have survived through to the present time and they have been duly replaced by others equally (though differently) troubled.
This feeling of progression is also felt at the end of London Rules. Within the last few pages of the novel, there are tantalising hints of at least four storylines that Herron – and we – are keen to explore in more detail. I look forward to seeing what comes next.