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. Spook Street appeared after the novel Real Tigers in 2017. Read more on other Slough House books here.
“First law of Spook Street. Secrets don’t stay secret.”
The slow horses got off remarkably light in Real Tigers with no major casualties. Herron seems to feel bad about that as the body count rises to previously unseen levels in the fourth book in the series. No one is safe in Spook Street and only a couple of the slow horses come out unscathed.
If we’re looking for themes in the Slough House series, with this entry I would get a bit Shakespearean. It’s an idea that has been around longer than the bard but I like his phrasing. From The Merchant of Venice, act III, sc. V, l. 1 –
“The sins of the father are to be laid upon the children.”
We get a wide variety of real and surrogate fathers in this book. There’s Jackson Lamb of course, a drunk, abusive father figure right out of a Dickens novel. I would only wish him to be the father of my greatest enemies. In the last book some of his past sins came to light and continue to effect Slough House, as Catherine Standish has left MI5 out of disgust.
David Cartwright, River’s grandfather, took on a caretaker role after his daughter Isobel left River with him. Decisions he made decades ago as an MI5 leader result in horrible consequences.
We also meet Frank Harkness, CIA agent turned Fagin to a bunch of wayward children spies. His belief in a plan to fight fire with fire back in the early 90’s has ended up bearing bitter fruit for present day Britain.
Finally, the long reign of Ingrid Tearney as head of MI5 has ended and for the first time we see a male First Desk in action. Claude Whelan goes through the five stages of grief as he starts to come to terms with the realities of being the one in charge of MI5.
Pulling back even more, we see the sins of MI5 coming back to haunt England, which is almost a larger theme of the entire Slough House series.
All of these flawed father figures have broken the implicit pact that a father has with his children – to keep them safe and look out for them. The repercussions of those failures reverberate throughout the book.
Although the fairy tales we tell our children have now been sanitized and given happy endings, the original tale tellers (and Herron) know it’s better to recognize that a parent makes a deal with the Pied Piper at their own peril. If you’re not careful, he just may return to spirit your children away.
Looking past the themes, if Dead Lions was Louisa Guy’s chance to shine, and Real Tigers was a showcase for Catherine Standish, here we are back to River taking center stage. He is forced to face several hard truths about his family and with David Cartwright falling into dementia he’s losing his only remaining anchor since becoming a slow horse.
River Cartwright – He’s having trouble facing his grandfather’s mortality and losing the only father figure he’s ever known.
David Cartwright – Former power behind the throne of MI5 now slowing losing touch with reality.
Louisa Guy – After finally finding her footing following the death of her boyfriend, her confidence is again shaken after the apparent death of another slow horse.
Jackson Lamb – Lamb becomes even scarier in this book as we see a side of him we never have before – a laughing, social Jackson Lamb.
Catherine Standish – She made her exit from Slough House, but will find it’s not as easy as she may think to walk away.
Roddy Ho – Roddy Ho has a girlfriend. Enough said.
JK Coe – One of the sharper minds running with the slow horses. Also probably a psychopath. Win some, lose some.
Marcus Longfellow – Marcus is still gambling, but with pressure mounting from his family and work, will his luck finally run out?
Shirley Dander – Still a drug addict with anger issues.
Diana Taverner – Still lucky to have a job after the escapades of the last book, she is working to reset the equilibrium with a new first Desk. Will she ever find a way to be First Desk? Or will she be stuck in the role David Cartwright had, forever telling yourself you’re happy to be the power behind the throne?
Claude Whelan – The new First Desk and about to undergo his first trial by fire and fury.
“Bad Sam” Chapman – He’s diverted from his quest to reunite a 13 year old runaway with her family by his past association with David Cartwright.
Nothing more frightening, to someone who’d lived by his wits, than to be slowly losing them.
An update on old friends –
Peter Judd, for example, erstwhile Home Secretary and Prime Minister manqué, had retired into what passed for him as private life, his business interests—the official story going—having become incompatible with a political career. Dame Ingrid Tearney, former Head of the Intelligence Service, had likewise surrendered the reins of office, in her case to take up a role at one of the heritage charities dedicated to preserving Britain’s traditional verities: not so different in aim, perhaps, from her former life, but involving, it was to be hoped, less carnage.
Catherine Standish on Lamb’s abilities as a conversationalist-
She shook her head; at the cigarette, at him, at the way he broke news, which was the way he broke everything else: with a certain grim joy at watching it shatter.
How a brainstorming session with Lamb goes –
Marcus objected. “If I was gunna hit River, I might follow him and do it there. Out of the city, empty roads, easy getaway.”
“I’m sure we’ve all spent hours planning the best way of killing River,” Lamb said. “But our assassin came all the way from France, which sounds more like a job than a hobby. So let’s assume he was after Grandpa. Business before pleasure and all that.”
Method of Opening Tour of Slough House
There’s a couple of choice quotes on city life in this book.
This first one rings true to me as a Chicagoan where, when it comes to driving, there are only two times of year – winter season and construction season.
There was a hold-up somewhere: a faulty traffic light, an accident, or—probably—a stretch of road being dug up, with a knock-on effect spreading ever outward. He’d seen a sign near some roadworks not long ago: two hundred yards of plastic mesh and bollards, not a workman in sight, and a notice reading: “We are currently examining the waterpipes in this area. At times, it will look like no work is being done.” Nothing like getting your alibi in first.
A refreshing look at the joys of public transit –
The bus had arrived at a scheduled stop ten minutes previously and had remained there since, engine off, though traffic flowed freely past. None of the passengers made any audible complaint. Either they were regulars and had expected the hiatus, or were new to buses and had lost the will to live.
Finally, this discussion of London as a whole –
Oh yes, grey London. London was a class-A city, of course, constantly topping those lists which explained the world in bullet points. It had the best clubs, the best restaurants, the best hotels; it threw the best parties, and cobbled together the best Olympics ever. It had the best royal family, the best annual dog show and the best police force, and was basically brilliant except for the parts that weren’t, which were like someone had taken all the worst bits of everywhere else and shored them up against each other. And the traffic was a fucking nightmare.
For the Collector
Spook Street was released February 9th, 2017 in the UK by John Murray and on the 21st of that same month in the US by Soho Press. In the UK the backlist paperback reprints got a new look in line with the Spook Street hardcover. The US hardcovers stayed basically the same.
Signed copies of both can be found rather easily and inexpensively.
Herron again dips into his characters past to mine the drama as it relates to current and past MI5 skullduggery. Although the big plot twist seems to stretch the possible, even for Slough House, it’s handled well enough that I went with it. Herron’s dialog continues to snap and he has a natural ability to make the reader invest in his character’s stories.
Next up is a look at book 5 in the Slough House series – London Rules.