In anticipation of Mick Herron’s US release of London Rules, the fifth book in his Slough House series, I’m doing a re-read of the first four books. Second is Dead Lions from 2013.
“Dead lions,” Molly said.
“What about them?”
“It’s a kids’ party game. You have to pretend to be dead. Lie still. Do nothing.”
“What happens when the game’s over?” Lamb asked.
“Oh,” she said. “I expect all hell breaks loose.”
All hell certainly does break loose in Dead Lions, the second book featuring the misfits and screwups in MI5 that are sent to bide their time in Slough House. In the sequel, a dead spy sets off a chain of events that involves Russian oligarchs, small English towns, and the biggest building in London. Of course the slow horses get pulled into the intrigue and manage to muddle their way through.
As with the first book, the plot is fine and Herron continues to find new ways to reverse the expectations of the reader but the real enjoyment is seeing how this group of distinctively drawn characters interact. You would never want to meet or work with these people in real life but you can’t help but root for them when reading about them. Although Jackson Lamb and River Cartwright get top billing, this is really Lousia Guy’s book. She gets the character arc and goes through the greatest changes.
Herron also plays with the format a bit. Whereas the first book broke things into chapters, this one is two sections with no official chapter breaks. It gives the book a increased pace and there is a definite distinction between the two parts. In the first section we reconnect with the also-rans that have been put out to pasture as slow horses and slide back into the smooth rhythm Herron’s created between the various characters. All that is just to prepare us for his upending of the apple cart in the second part of the book.
Although it says it right in the title, this is a novel about death and how we move past the loss of those that we care for or are responsible for. Or that maybe there is no moving on from losing someone? Do you take revenge or find some sort of acceptance with the new reality? In the end, Herron’s point seems to be that raging against the way things are does little long term good for yourself and nothing to help those whom you’ve lost. Easy to say, harder to do.
River Cartwright – In the first book his bungled call on a potential terror incident landed him on the Slow Horses. Can he top that in book two?
Roddy “Clint” Ho – Hacking skills – 99%, People skills – 1% Only thing keeping his people skills from rating a 0% is the existence of someone with even less. See “Jackson Lamb”
Min Harper – Sees an assignment from the untrustworthy “Spider” Webb as his way back into the big leagues.
Louisa Guy – She’s surprised to find her relationship with Min giving her a purpose and strength she forgot she had.
Catherine Standish – Still the steady hand in Slough House and current Roddy Ho-whisperer.
Marcus Longfellow – Special operator and potential plant in Slough House by the politically wily Diana Taverner.
Shirley Dander – A new slow horse who gets a high from doing her job, also from cocaine.
Jackson Lamb – Never found a nap not worth taking, belch not worth belching or fart not worth letting loose. The improbable head of Slough House.
Diana “Lady Di” Taverner – She keeps a finger on all the plotters plots at MI5 with the hope that one of them will propel her to the top job.
Arkady Pashkin – A Russian oligarch that Spider is trying draw into his web.
James “Spider” Webb – Schemer and dreamer who unrealistically sees himself climbing the ladder past many people much better at scheming than him. See “Diana Taverner”
Molly Doran – Old MI5 hand who lost her legs at some point in the 90’s. Knows where the bodies are buried.
Alexander Popov – A former KGB officer that’s more ghost than reality.
Memorable Quotes –
Catherine Standish ignores cats. Cats are either adjuncts or substitutes, and Catherine Standish has no truck with either. Having a cat is one small step from having two cats, and to be a single woman within a syllable of fifty in possession of two cats is tantamount to declaring life over. Catherine Standish has had her share of scary moments but has survived each of them, and is not about to surrender now.
Min contemplating the world’s second oldest profession –
If his marriage had been strong to begin with, he sometimes lectured himself, it would have survived his professional humiliation, but the truth, he’d come to understand, held a tighter focus. If he himself had been strong, he would have ensured that his marriage survived. As it was, his marriage was definitely a thing of the past, what with Louisa being on the scene. He was pretty sure Clare wouldn’t tolerate that particular development, and while he hadn’t told her about it, he wasn’t convinced she didn’t know. Women were born spooks, and could smell betrayal before it happened.
The Cold War –
It was always handy, as Lamb’s mentor Charles Partner once remarked, to have a supply of expendable Russians on the books. Apart from anything else, you never knew when the wheel would spin again, bringing the world back where it started. “Where it started” was a phrase neither questioned. The Cold War was the natural state of affairs.
Lamb on fitting in –
At the bar he ordered a large scotch for himself, because he wanted to give the impression of being kind of a lush, and also because he wanted a large scotch.
Lamb on social media –
She said, “You’re sending River undercover—”
“Oh god, I might have guessed,” Lamb sighed.
“—into something you already know is a trap?”
“I only told him a couple of hours ago. Did he change his Facebook status already?”
“So am I. Did gramps not teach that kid anything except how to tell stories?”
Lamb as motivational speaker –
“Look, Roddy.” This was said kindly. “All that crap I lay on you? The name-calling? The threats?”
“It’s okay,” Ho said. “I know you don’t mean it.”
“I mean every bloody word, my son. But it will all seem trivial compared to what’ll happen if you don’t start making sense sharpish. Capisce?”
They were on the seventy-seventh floor of one of the City’s newest buildings; a great glass needle that soared eighty storeys into London’s skies. And it was some room they were in, a huge one, yay metres long and woah metres wide, with floor-to-ceiling views to north and west of the capital, and then the wide space beyond, where the capital gave up and the sky took over. She could spend days in here, Louisa thought; not eating, not drinking; just taking in as much of the view as she could, in every weather, and all types of light. “Spectacular” didn’t come close. Even the lift had been a thrill: quieter, smoother and faster than any she’d known.
Herron adds a few new locations to his world. The Needle, London’s newest and tallest building is spot where a secret meeting between MI5 and the Russians is due to take place. It’s a major set piece of the book and certainly seems to be based on the London Shard (see the image at the top of the page.)
Upshott, the smallest of small villages in the Cotswalds, is located a stone’s throw from a Ministry of Defense installation and is hiding secrets that are sure to come to light before the final page. I’m sure it’s based on some real town and if you think the name is a bit fanciful, google some names of real towns in that area. It’s not too out of line.
The Ambassador is the hotel that the Russian oligarch is suppose to be staying in. I don’t believe it exists (please correct me if I’m wrong) but I would guess it’s Herron’s version of the Four Seasons which is located on Park Lane, as the supposed Ambassador is, and costs upwards of $6000 a night. Perfect for your standard issue oligarch.
Other locations include Min and Louisa meeting Spider Webb to get their marching orders in St. James Park and taking a stroll around the lake. The pair also meet a couple of Russian heavies outside
For the Collector –
It appears that, like the first book, it was the same book with a slightly different cover but I haven’t been able to confirm that. Herron was still being published by Soho Press in the US and Constable in the UK so presumably the same thing was in effect for this release. The copyright page of the US edition I have is the traditional US style opposed to the hybrid version in Slow Horses. At least at this point, I haven’t been able to find a different hardcover release. If anyone with the UK edition knows different, let me know!
By the time Real Tigers was released the UK publisher John Murrays had taken on the UK rights, reissued Herron’s backlist and promoted the heck out of it leading to the series gaining a lot of traction.
An interesting difference is that in the hardcover release, there were no chapter numbers listed. The paperback UK rerelease added in chapter numbers.
Dead Lions is a superb follow up to Slow Horses and proves that the Slough House series is well placed to have a long life, even if you can’t say the same for his characters.
Next up is a look at book 2.5 in the Slough House series – The List.