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. The Slough House related book Nobody Walks appeared after the short story The List and between the novels Dead Lions and Real Tigers in 2015.
In a change of pace from the regular Slough House books, Mick Herron whips up a laser focused revenge tale that brings to mind the relentless Parker books of Donald Westlake. Tom Beattany, a former MI5 undercover agent, has walked away from his former life after the death of his wife, but when he learns his son Liam has died in odd circumstances he’s drawn back in to the criminal underworld of London.
Although this is not an official Slough House book, it does live in the same universe and introduces some important characters that appear in later books. For the first time we meet in person Diana Taverner’s much talked about boss and nemesis Dame Ingrid Tearney, the head of MI5. She seems to have been created after Herron did a reread of Roald Dahl’s The Witches. Bald with a variety of wigs, she dresses fashionably and gives off the vibe of a sweet, if ugly, grandmother. However it’s all to hide a spine of steel and machinations that would make Taverner blush. This book almost feels as though it was written to give Tearney a showcase to prove why she’s even more formidable than her subordinate.
We also again meet JK Coe who made his first appearance in The List. Here he gets put through the ringer and for the second time, the first being River Cartwright, we see the events that lead to the creation of a slow horse. He’s rising in the ranks of my favorite Slough House characters.
But this is really Beattany’s story and from the beginning you get the sense that nobody will be walking away clean from this story. Beatteny learns that running away from your problems doesn’t make them go away but facing them doesn’t guarantee a happy ending either.
Especially appreciated were the subtle clues to what is really going on dropped throughout the book. By the time all is revealed, you realize the answer to what’s been going on was staring you in the face the whole time.
Tom Beattany – Former undercover MI5 agent, former faux-criminal, former Dog, former butcher, former husband, former father. Currently a man with nothing left to lose but whatever little bit of his soul he has left.
Dame Ingrid Tearney – Head of MI5 and someone with so many nefarious plans in the air she could join the circus as a juggler.
JK Coe – Coe learns the hard way that “Kill the messenger” is not just a turn of phrase when you work for MI5.
Francis “Flea” Pointer – Naive and sentimental friend of Liam, Bettaney’s son.
Victor Driscoll – Odd duck, “tender plant” and millionaire software developer who may or may not have caused the death of Liam.
Beattany questioning Flea about where Liam got his pot –
“…You smoked his, didn’t you?”
She said, “Usually.”
“Always. I never … I wouldn’t know where to get hold of it.”
This seemed to embarrass her. It was as if she were confessing to never buying her round.
Coe analyzing Beattany –
“[H]e’s a man with a certain skill set. If he feels he’s been robbed, he’ll do something about it.”
“He’ll kill them,” Coe said. “He’ll go after whoever he decides responsible, and he’ll kill them”
Beattany on how to stay alive undercover –
He didn’t often think of his past, but that too was the undercover mentality. The person you used to be was sealed off, boxed tight, locked shut, and you walked away. But nobody really walked.
On the difficulties of being in upper management –
Oskar has stood shoulder-to-shoulder with him in the lean years, broken legs when leg breaking was needed, but had lately taken to saying things like Sure, Boss? when he should have been saying Sure, Boss.
Dame Ingrid on the the importance of always telling the truth-
[H]ere under Regent’s Park, some floors below the one at which she alighted now, various events had occurred in recent years which it was occasionally her duty to deny had ever taken place. Not on English soil was her preferred phrase. Such things – the treatment of suspects, the over-rigorous pursuit of testimony – did not take place on English soil, as she had stated more than once to more than one committee. And this remained the legal truth of the matter, as the things in question were taking place some distance below that.
Again Dame Ingrid, now discussing time management –
… I run a very large, very busy Service. You have no idea how many schemes I’ve overseen that came to nothing. You get used to it.
Nobody Walks takes us through a seedier side of London than the Slough House series has visited.
First we get a tour of the nightlife and clubs of London. For some reason the thought of Herron doing the research and visiting some of these exclusive clubs makes me smile as I would imagine they’re not the types of places he would blend in.
The Angel neighborhood is where the folks in the tech company are located and it’s apparently a very hip area of London off of the canal. It offers an interesting contrast between the seedy end of London we see when Beattany has to reach back out to his contacts in the criminal underworld.
For the Collector
Released again in the US and UK via Soho Press and it’s the final book released by them in the UK before John Murray took over. Murray did release the paperback version but have not yet reissued it with the updated cover art.
Although Herron’s sly sense of humor occasionally slips through, he can’t help himself, for the most part this is a sleek, taut revenge story that heads towards its inevitable conclusion. I read it in big gulps and once you start it you won’t want to put it down. For fans of the Slough House series I would consider it essential for its introduction of Dame Ingrid and JK Coe.
Next up is a look at book 3 in the Slough House series – Real Tigers.