It’s a Mystery: “Half of the future is buried in the past”
By Mick Herron
Soho Crime, 2013
By Stephen Talty
Ballantine Books, 2013
Hard on the heels of his engaging mystery series set in Oxford, Mick Herron turned his attention to MI5. He has now written two wickedly funny, deeply irreverent spy novels. He reminds me of Graham Greene, whose best spy stories, like Our Man in Havana, are leavened and lightened by undertones of satire. Herron, like Greene, has a keenly observant eye for the characteristics and quirks that lie beneath the surface of human beings. Greene dismissively labeled his forays into spy fiction as “entertainments.” It’s a good word for Herron’s duo and I mean it as a compliment.
In the opening chapter of Mick Herron’s Dead Lions, the sequel to Slow Horses (2010), Dickie Bow, an old Cold-War era spy, dies on an Oxford-bound bus. Moments before boarding, he’d felt a sudden wasp-sharp sting pricking his thigh, and brushed against a slick damp umbrella. This “uh oh” moment is so subtly woven into the narrative that you almost miss it and its significance. If you are paying attention you don’t have to be a complete espionage aficionado to surmise that Dickie Bow did not die of natural causes. That’s also the conclusion of Jackson Lamb, the surly, cantankerous head of Slough House where washed-up MI5 spies go to lick the wounds of their failed careers. Lamb doesn’t care that the post-mortem says heart attack, he knows in his intelligence bred bones it’s murder. Plus, he feels a perverse sense of duty to a fellow spy out of his past: Lamb and Bow served together in the Spooks’ Zoo, a.k.a. Berlin:
Perched on the back seat of a bus where a man had died…. Lamb had trouble recalling the man’s face. The image he kept coming up with was sleek and pointy, like a rat, but then that’s what Dickie Bow had been, a street rat; adept at crawling through holes too small for him. That had been his key survival skill. It didn’t appear to have helped him lately…he traced a finger over the back of the seat in front…the faint tracery in a corner suggesting random scratching rather than an attempt to etch a dying message…. It was years since Bow had been in the Service, and even then, he’d been one of that great army who’d never been inside the tent….
There was no brotherhood code. If Dickie Bow had succumbed to a mattress fire, Lamb would have got through the five stages without batting an eye: denial, anger, bargaining, indifference, breakfast. But Bow had died in the back seat of a moving coach, without a ticket in his pocket. Booze, fags and fry-ups aside, the P.M. couldn’t explain Bow’s being in the sticks when he should have been working his shift at a Soho pornshop….
He studied the rubber lining along the base of the window, looking for scratch marks—ridiculous perhaps, but Moscow rules meant assuming your mail was read. When you needed to leave a message, you left it by other means…sliding his hand down the back of the seat, forcing it between two cushions, encountering the edge of something hard…he pulled his treasure free…an old, fat, bottom-of-the line mobile phone which contains a cryptic unsent text—the single word “cicadas”
Back at Slough House, Lamb’s dissolute domain (“the spooks’ equivalent of Devil’s Island,” to which disgraced or out-of-favor British Spies are exiled), his agents sees Bow’s death as a chance to get back in the action, to get back to Regent’s Park, the Service’s heart and moral high-ground. It’s the aim of all the dishonored denizens of Slough House including Lamb, though he’d only admit it on pain of death. Once they start digging, all the trails lead to high level Russian intrigue, and a decades-old conspiracy. The “bogeyman” at its center is Alexander Popov—a legend who never existed. Or did he? Lamb thinks he might have. If he is right, he’s in grave danger—they all are. Not just from real Cold War phantoms but, as it turns out, from those “cicadas” who are definitely not just noisy insects.
Herron is as secretive as his flock of semi-failed agents. He keeps the suspense at a fever pitch by skillfully keeping us in the dark about what his characters reveal to each other until the absolute last moment. And some of those secret involve the characters’ former lives: “But previous lives never really disappear. The skins we slough, we hang in wardrobes: emergency wear, just in case.”
Dead Lions is at once a finely wrought thriller and a farcical, fiercely pointed tale of political greed and bureaucratic corruption. Mick Herron writes like a dream.
South Buffalo, New York, the patch of Ireland in the wilds of America known as the County, where Black Irish takes place, is light years away from Slough House. What they do have in common is a slew of dark secrets that result in violence. To Detective Absalom (Abbie) Kearney, lately returned to care for her ailing dad, a highly admired ex-cop, Buffalo is a decaying place:
It’s the emptiness…or the loneliness…the feeling of being alone in a place that should be filled with other people…. Buffalo had built miles of highways during the boom years, enough for a million people. The people that were going to come but didn’t…. The highway system was a network of veins laid across a dead heart…. The whole city was entombed by the artifacts of its glory days.
Abbie grew up in the city and went on to graduate from Harvard. Not necessarily a plus among the closely-knit residents of the County: “Harvard grads like Abbie were regarded as nothing less than two-headed aliens.”
She’s made her way back after what started as a brilliant homicide career in Florida turned sour. The reasons are somewhat complicated and murky. After a year, her fellow cops in the Buffalo PD still don’t quite know what to make of this spunky, driven lady with a troubled past whose father is a legend in the Department.
When the brutally mutilated body of Jimmy Ryan is found in a local church basement, then Abbie’s drive turns into an obsession. Especially as the body count escalates and each murder is more savage and bestial than the last. As she relentlessly pursues this demoniac serial killer, she finds herself up against a stone wall. None of the residents of this clannish Irish enclave will talk to her even though many know what is happening. The County takes care of its own.
Undeterred, she noses around the Gaelic Club, whose walls are filled with dark confidences and gossip flows as freely as the drink. It’s there that she hears about the Clan na Gael, a secret organization with roots in the IRA whose raison d’être is what is colloquially known as the Troubles. The Clan, as it turns out, is alive and well and connected to drugs and gun running in Buffalo. Not so coincidentally, each murder victim was a member of the Clan.
As Abbie gets close to exposing the killer, the hunt takes a stunning twist into her family’s past.
The revelations multiply, no one is unscathed, and the dark underbelly of the County is exposed. We are catapulted to an inexorably grim, completely shocking conclusion.
In Stephen Talty’s Black Irish the sense of place in economically ravaged Buffalo is palpably evoked. It is an elegantly plotted, multidimensional thriller. Add Absalom Kearney to the list of heroines I want to see more of.
Irma Heldman is a veteran publishing executive and book reviewer with a penchant for mysteries. One of her favorite gigs was her magazine column “On the Docket” under the pseudonym O. L. Bailey.