Reconstruction – Mick Herron

In anticipation of Mick Herron’s US release of London Rules, the fifth book in his Slough House series, I did a re-read of his Slough House related work. Reconstruction came out in 2008 and is in many ways the proto-Slough House novel. Read more I’ve written on Herron and other Slough House books here.

For as long as it lasted the Memory was banished and he was simply Eliot Pedlar: not a great father, but he answered to Daddy.

What can a young man holding a preschool classroom hostage have to do with a spy that’s slipped into the shadows with a quarter billion pounds? That’s what MI6 wants to know.

I’d put off reading Reconstruction for awhile, most likely due to its setup, a gunman taking a schoolroom hostage. The fact that school shootings have become all to common in the United States makes what is at its core a twisty spy mystery a bit harder to enjoy. Add in the fact that the setting is familiar to anyone with children makes it even more unsettling.

Luckily for the reader Herron quickly makes it apparent that there is more to the story than a jacket blurb would lead you to believe. He also doesn’t overplay the “children in jeopardy” angle, which I appreciated. It’s a easy crutch that too many writers rely on and nothing turns me off from a book faster.

Underreported is the fact that this book serves as the connective tissue linking his Oxford series of mysteries and the Slough House series. Several events from his first book, such as the Crane brothers and the explosion that was the novel’s inciting incident, receive mentions and Bad Sam Chapman and Jed Moody of Slough House are characters.

In many ways it’s a bit of a prequel to Slow Horses as the events of this book are vaguely mentioned and you can very clearly see Herron working out some things that will come into clearer focus in Slow Horses. Although the changes aren’t as dramatic, Herron follows le Carré’s tradition of not letting previously established facts from his novels stop him from adjusting things when the story demands. The Dogs and Queens of the Database are talked about but stated as part of MI6, not MI5 as in later books, we see the concept of “collect-and-comfort,” something which reappears in the Slough House series, kick the story off and spy office politics are an important plot point. There’s also his now trademark “point of view” section that follows something – a cat, a bus, etc. – as it takes in an overview of the scene and bookend his Slough House books. In this case its in the middle of the book and involves a bird flying over the chaotic hostage scene.

A bit of an odd section is when an unnamed and no further mentioned omniscient narrator that makes an appearance. I’m not sure if there’s something I missed or if it’s a reference to an earlier book, but it was a striking moment of breaking the fourth wall and something I don’t recall from either his Slough House or Oxford books.

The first hundred pages is made up of cross cutting introductions of the various players and if there’s a criticism, it’s that the reader is best served by reading that section in one sitting; it will make following who’s who a bit easier. Once Herron has the pieces in place though, it’s off to the races.

Reconstruction has more righteous fury than we see in the Slough House books. In his later books any anger at the way the world works is cut by the humor, whereas here, the level of humor is toned down which elevates the outrage over the war in Iraq and its aftermath. along with the way the aftermath. This is a book with an edge.

Characters

Eliot Pedlar – A new father still reconciling himself, not always in positive ways, to his new set of circumstances. He ends up trapped in the school with his two three year old sons, Timmy and Gordon.

Jonathan Nott – “Laterally shifted” by MI6, this event will either put him back on the board or remove him completely.

Bad Sam Chapman – Head Dog for MI6 and registered cynic. Determined to get his man.

Judith Anisworth – Left by her husband and forced to take a nursery cleaning job, her already miserable personality goes to even greater depths.

Louise Kennedy – A first year Nursery school teacher with a secret past.

Ben Whistler – MI6 accountant drawn into events that put him in over his head.

DS Bain – Chekhov’s Policeman.

Memorable Quotes

Giving an early taste of the London Rules –

It was likely Ashton had a girlfriend somewhere – possibly even a mother – and either or both would be receiving grim phone calls about now. Which was sad, but when you scraped away the sentiment Neil Ashton had displayed a gun on a collect-and-comfort, then compounded the error by losing it. He’d better hope he died on the operating table, because if he ever walked upright again, Sam Chapman would break him in two and kick the halves in different directions.

Blessed are the unforgiving, for they shall come out even. That was the lost frigging beatitude as far as Bad Sam Chapman was concerned. As for the meek: we’ll make them give it back.

An example of how Bad Sam got his name –

It wasn’t the card he carried a lot of the time, it wa anything but. It was the way he said it: years of experience plus attitude. It was okay if people ended up nursing a grudge; that was the basis of most of Bad Sam’s relationships.

The joys of aging –

People made the mistake of thinking older people weak. But you only got old by surviving. Things wore out, but the core got harder.

Some of the book’s best bits are Bad Sam related –

“The way Sam Chapman saw it, three things happened in life:

1. You did your job faultlessly and didn’t get thanked

or

2. you fucked up and were

3. dumped on from a great height.

Chapman was hovering around the two-and-a-bit mark; waiting for the other shoe to drop. The thing was, not to let anyone know he was doing just that. There was always a chance he could clean up before the Office released the dogs. The fact that he was Head Dog was an irony no bringing him great pleasure.

Cityscapes

 This one is actually easy. Before the first page there’s a brief acknowledgement that the fictional preschool or nursery in British terms, is based on the Grandpont nursery. Sure enough, googling it brings up a map and pictures of a place strikingly similar to what’s described in the book.

For the Collector

 Although I can’t say definitively, from the copies I’ve seen, it looks as though Soho Constable released the same printing for the US/Canada/UK markets with pricing for all three appearing on the same dust jacket.

Conclusion

 Reconstruction uses the worst morning six people have ever faced to review all their poor choices and the consequences of bad behavior. Herron knows just how to add the right amounts of humor and darkness to make one morning a prism for thinking about the decisions we all face.

The next book Herron wrote built on the spy world he started creating in ReconstructionSlow Horses.

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