Cover - Joe Country by Mick Herron - review by Charles Harris

Publishers, agents and readers love a running series. Like a fast food outlet a good series promises a regular supply of what you love. A McNovel.

Mick Herron hit a rich vein of dark spy humour with his Slough House series of grunge espionage books. (I previously reviewed #4 – Spook Street). His latest – Joe Country – is #6. Is it haute cuisine or just another burger?

The Slow Horses

The major problem with any series is characters. It’s the characters, almost always, who draw us into a story. We identify with them, or love to hate them. And in the past, with the Slough House books, Herron has given us both.

There’s the grotesquely awful yet compelling figure of Jackson Lamb – a kind of secret service Falstaff, boozing, smoking and farting his way through the plot, yet always keeping his finger on the pulse.

And there are his Slow Horses: the endearingly bumbling failures who make up his staff, demoted from MI5. In particular, River Cartwright, unfairly cast off after a debacle that was no fault of his own.

However, characters need to grow and face new challenges – while still remaining the characters we knew and loved. This is the double-bind where most falter. Too many series start with a bang, only for the protagonists to whimper their way through the sequels.

Herron has done his best to avoid this trap by providing a large cast of regulars for variety. He has also experimented with changes of tone, for example in last autumn’s novella The Drop, in which he tested a darker palette and two new additions to the cast.

Joe Country

Joe Country takes place largely in “joe country” – which is where the joes – or spies – go when they’re not in the office. In this case, a snowbound Wales, where a young man has gone missing. Risking her life, one of the Slow Horses sets out to search for him in her spare time, because she had an affair with his father, also a spy, who is now dead.

At the same time, River Cartwright’s absentee father, a rogue CIA agent, seems to be taking a dangerous interest in the members of the team. And, for different reasons, both Cartwright and Lamb are after him for revenge.

Fathers, their deaths and misdemeanours, form one of the engaging themes of the book.

Slough House delights

Herron provides all the usual delights that his fans will expect. There is the grungy, infested Slough House. The monstrously gross Lamb. And the continual hope that somehow the inept heroes will manage to outwit the slick, smug professionals.

Colombo meets James Bond.

Darkening the humour has worked well for Herron here. It allows him to relax and not force the jokes, as has sometimes happened in the past. It has also yielded a tighter, sharper plot.

Most importantly, it has allowed him to raise the personal stakes for the key characters, making them more compelling than ever. Yet still keeping his satirical acid wit and his laugh-out-loud one-liners.

As a result, this time the introduction to the backstories of every character, which has sometimes felt a tad long-winded in previous books, rattles along well.

Topical prescience

The previous instalment of the series, London Rules, included some prescient plot twists involving contemporary politicians. But always felt a bit light-weight.

I’m pleased to say, Herron’s prescience-sense is spot on again with another very topical plot device which I won’t spoil for you, and the handling is stronger.

Herron is even confident enough to warn us up-front that two of our heroes will almost certainly be dead by the end – though he leaves us dangling as to which it might be.

If I have one criticism, it’s that a few of the less prominent Slow Horses tend to blur together. It’s not easy to carry such a large cast in your head, and Herron juggles them with aplomb, for the most part. But just a few times, I found myself wondering who someone was and how they were different from someone else.

It’s a small niggle for an admirably entertaining and original series that manages to keep reinventing itself and keep improving.

This book is the best of the series so far. The seventh is billed as the last – it will be very interesting to see what kind of bang he plans to go out with.

Read more

Joe Country

Review of Slough House 4 – Spook Street

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