Spook Street: Spies, it seems, come in distinct and recognisable flavours.

There’s the glamorous-sexy (Bond), the depressive-tragic (The Spy Who Came In From The Cold). The dumped-on-by-the-boss (The Ipcress File). The intellectual-self-effacing (Smiley). And, of course, the charming-but-traitorous (anyone you like fromSpook Street by Mick Herron - comic spy thriller reviewed by Charles Harris the Cambridge Five).

Now, thanks to British comedy thriller writer Mick Herron, we have a new variety: the relegated-no-hopers.

Such are the stars, if that’s the right word, who twinkle furtively in his Jackson Lamb series of darkly comic spy novels. Spook Street is the fourth (London Rules, the fifth and latest, came out yesterday).

I started with the fourth in the series, which is probably a ridiculous thing to do, but somehow in keeping with the overall madness.

Foul-mouthed and farting boss

Jackson Lamb himself turns out to be the foul-mouthed, farting, uncouth head of a gaggle of washed-out spooks, all of whom have screwed-up badly in the past. So badly, that they probably should have been sacked, if it weren’t for one saving factor.

In the case of River Cartwright, it’s his grandfather, David – the OB or “old bastard” – who used to be a high-level spy himself. The OB pulled strings to keep River in a job after a massive cock-up that risked hundreds of deaths in Kings Cross station.

River’s salvation is a mixed-blessing, though, destined to be given mind-numbingly boring jobs. Indeed, we meet him, in the first of the series, Slow Horses, sifting through bags of rotting rubbish – before chance gives him an opportunity for real action.

Spook Street – complex, dark yet comic

In Spook Street, fate intervenes again. It starts, literally, with a bang, as a bomb kills a large flash mob in Westacres, a stylish retail centre in West London.

Meanwhile, River is making routine visit to his grandfather. The OB, by now, is growing senile, and is convinced that the man who calls himself his grandson is actually a “stoat” intent on murdering him. Of course, the old man has kept a gun handy for just such moments.

By the time Lamb is called to the scene to identify River’s body, the OB has gone missing, and a complex, dark yet comic plot begins to unfold. For in some strange way the OB seems to be connected to the Westacres attack.

Soon the plot’s tentacles will stretch up to the highest ranks of the Secret Service, across the channel to the Mick Herron - Spook Street reviewed by Charles Harrissmoking ruins of a sinister house in France – and back in time to rattle some pretty unpleasant skeletons in the OB’s past.

Zingers

One of the many joys of Herron’s writing is the cast of characters he creates. This is not Le Carré-style realism by any stretch of the imagination. His spies are Dickensian in their obsessions, always funny and full of horribly recognisable foibles.

Each individual cheerfully nurses their own personal grievances and prejudices. Yet each also possesses admirable skills and strengths. And this ensures we care about them as the tension rises and killers close in on their grubby headquarters in central London.

Herron also has a sharp ear for a comic turn of phrase and a crackling line of dialogue. Few paragraphs go by without their share of zingers. And the action is constantly surprising. Gripping without ever feeling (too) forced.

The truth, when finally revealed, turns out to be insane and yet, possibly for that reason, all-too believable.

I look forward immensely now to reading the next in the series – already borrowed from our local community library. Before catching up on the rest.

Highly recommended.

By the way, if you’re around North West London on Monday 19th February, Mick will be coming to talk at my favourite local bookshop West End Lane Books – free but you need to book your place.

To buy Spook Street on Amazon UK or USA

Mick Herron’s website

And if you like mystery and humour – check out my review of Rivers of London by Ben Aaronovitch – or for darker satire John Niven’s Straight White Male