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It’s a Mystery: “It’s wonderful how well men can keep secrets they have not been told”

By (January 1, 2016) One Comment

Real Tigers
By Mick Herron
Soho Crime, 2016

Forty Thievesherronrealtigers
By Thomas Perry
The Mysterious Press, 2016

Real Tigers is the third novel in Mick Herron’s The Slough House series. The first was Slow Horses (2010), followed by Dead Lions (2013). At the start of Real Tigers, Catherine Standish is accosted by her ex-lover Sean Donovan outside Slough House. She works there for Jackson Lamb, the slovenly, surly, cantankerous keeper of this place once dubbed the “administrative oubliette” of the Intelligence Service. Slough House is Lamb’s kingdom—a dumping ground for members of the Service who’ve screwed up. They’re the Service’s poor relations, the slow horses. And they never forget that Jackson Lamb is quicker and more cunning than he looks.

Catherine, never a joe (OSS euphemism for a spy), reluctantly toils in their midst as Lamb’s assistant. A recovering alcoholic, she’s been there forever. She was the one who found her former boss, Charles Partner, in his bathroom dead of a self-inflicted gunshot wound:

No Service Head had been given free rein since Charles Partner: the first to die in office and the last to run the show. But then, Partner had been a Cold War warrior from his fur-lined collar to his fingerless gloves, and the Cold War had been simpler. Back then it had been easier to pretend it was a matter of us and them.

Now here is Catherine cornered by Donovan, thirteen months out of military prison where he was serving time for an accident he didn’t cause:

…he was not a forgettable man, being tall and broad shouldered with a nose that had been broken a time or two…they must look a pair standing here in the violet hour; him with warrior written all over him, and her in a dress buttoned to the neck,

Since it had to be addressed, she said, “I hadn’t realized you were…”

“Out?”

She nodded.

“A year ago. Thirteen months.” The voice, too, was not one to be forgotten: Its touch of the Irish. She had never been to Ireland, but sometimes, listening to him, her head would fill with soft green images.

Being a drunk had helped, of course.

“I could give you a figure in days,” he added.

“It must have been hard.”

“Oh, you have no idea,” he said. “You literally have no idea.”

For that, she had no reply.

They were standing still, and this was not good tradecraft. Even Catherine Standish, never a joe, knew that much.

He read this in her posture. “You were heading that direction?” Pointing towards the Old Street junction.

“Yes.”

…”I’ll walk with you if I may.” Which is what he did, exactly as if this were what it appeared to be; a chance encounter on a summer’s evening…In another age, thought Catherine, and perhaps even in some corners of this one, he would have taken her arm as they walked, which would have been sweet, and a little corny, but mostly would have been a lie. Because Catherine Standish—never a joe—knew this much too: that chance encounters might happen in some places, to some people, but they never happened here, to spooks.

What she doesn’t glean is that Sean Donovan is a soldier out for revenge who suddenly scoops her into his arms and into a black van that speeds them away. When the agents of Slough House learn of her kidnapping they are puzzled, as she doesn’t deal with confidential information or active files. The ransom demand knocks everybody off their pins: they must breach the top-notch security of MI5’s headquarters in London’s Regents Park and steal valuable intel stored on a secret government computer in exchange for Standish’s safety.

It falls to River Cartwright, the hero of Slow Horses, to try and infiltrate headquarters. Cartwright was initially banished to Slough because of a monumental screw-up that still haunts him. No matter what he accomplishes, Lamb and others constantly remind him that he is tolerated only because his grandfather, David Cartwright, was a Service legend.

River soon finds himself embroiled in the internecine politics of MI5. He gets caught in the middle of an ugly battle between the new home secretary and the Intelligence Service chief. The kidnapping turns out to be only the tip of the iceberg. The capture brings Slough House together as the members work to bring Standish home, tapping into skills long left dormant. River and his fellow agents uncover a larger web of intrigue that involves not only private mercenaries but the highest echelons of the Secret Service. The Slow Horses find themselves caught in the midst of a conspiracy that threatens not only their future but MI5 itself. Nobody emerges unscathed but there are more than a few surprising tricks up the collective sleeves of the motley Slough crew that just might save the day.

Herron’s repertory of fully formed characters is a pleasure to follow. He skillfully weaves the many strands necessary to conclude the trilogy without one false note. As he said in a piece for Open Letters about John le Carré’s Smiley trilogy, “It’s the famous trilogy in which his story takes on epic stature.” Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, The Honourable Schoolboy and Smiley’s People represent a daunting achievement in the genre. I would say that Mick Herron deserves comparable praise.

Thomas Perry’s first novel The Butcher’s Boy, published in 1982, won the Edgar Award for Best First Mystery. Perry has gone on to enjoy a prize-filled career as a consummate crime writer. To his credit, his oeuvre to date—from his outstanding Jane Whitfield series to his versatile array of stand-alone capers—defies categorization. perryfortythievesHe’s best known for Whitfield, however, who was described by the Wall Street Journal as the sort of protagonist most crime novelists would kill for. His newest, after last year’s Whitfield adventure A String of Beads, is Forty Thieves and it is high-voltage Perry.

Sid and Ronnie Abel are two savvy, former LAPD detectives turned PIs. They are hired by the Board of Directors of Intercelleron, a research corporation, to look into the murder of one of their scientists. He was James Ballantine, a middle-aged African American man, whose body was recovered from one of the city’s storm sewers the previous spring. He had two bullets in the back of his head. A slew of cops worked on the case to no avail.

At the same time, Ed and Nicole Hoyt, married assassins for hire, have a new gig: eliminate the Abels. The guy they’re dealing with is Vincent Boylan, but they know he’s only the middleman. What they don’t know—yet– is who he’s connected to. Here’s what Nicole is sure of:

“When somebody hires you to do a killing, you know they’re doing it because they aren’t up to a wet job themselves. In other words they’re weak. You know they have at least as much money as they’re promising to pay, because hiring a killer and not paying him is something not even a moron would do. And they also have other money, at least as much as they’re offering you.

They immerse themselves in what they believe is a foolproof plan to knock off the Abels.

At first, the most obvious question for the Abels, unaware that they have a target on their backs, is why re-open the case now? They get very little from David Hemphill their contact person who represents the Board of Intercelleron:

“I honestly don’t know. And I wouldn’t be too surprised if they didn’t know either. I think they’re trying to do the right thing, but none of them really knows how. I think that the only thing they’re sure of is that they shouldn’t just let it go.”

Furthermore, what the Abels learn from the police files sheds little light on the case:

Everybody the police interviewed said Ballantine was a quiet, decent man who got along well with everyone at work .but didn’t socialize much with his colleagues, except at official events—company conferences, the Christmas party and so on. No evidence of drugs, drinking, gambling…. He had a PhD in chemistry…he had been trying to synthesize compounds that would result in additives to make food more nutritious There was nothing directly connected to the military.

So they do some in-depth delving into the late Mr. Ballantine. Mister bland-nice-guy turns out to be a façade. He’s got plenty of people in his past who might want to do away with him. All the Abels have to do is home in on the right one, while foiling the Hoyts’ attempts to kill them.

Forty Thieves barrels along as the two couples spar with one another until they find themselves in the crosshairs of a lethal gang of Russian jewel thieves. That’s who Boylan is connected to! But—and it’s a big But—the Abels, being crackerjack at their job, have managed to take some incriminating photographs of a lady who is at the center of the jewel theft ring and just happens to have a special connection to Mr. Ballantine. This gets them invited to a high-level meeting chaired by agent John Roche. He’s from the US National Central Bureau of Interpol. After being introduced by Captain Albright of the LAPD, Roche is very much on:

“Thank you Captain,” said Roche. He said, “Sergeant Trevolino forwarded the photographs to our office in Washington last night, and immediately two of our agents recognized this lady.” He paused and watched the people in the room. “Ladies and gentleman, you’ve got a panther infestation…. It’s what the police in Europe call them—pink panthers, after the old movie. They’re diamond thieves mostly from parts of former Yugoslavia…. They’re never all men. There are always women too. Let me run you through the way the thefts work.”

And this he proceeds to do in astonishing and fascinating detail. Bottom line: from Paris to Dubai and wherever the wealthy congregate in between, they hit the places where they can walk out with at least three to five million in diamonds.

Along the way to a slam-dunk finale, in which everyone is shooting at everyone else, Perry offers a virtuoso blueprint for narrative sleight of hand. In Perry’s world you’ll find no faces from Central Casting, and you’ll hear no dialogue that rings flat or familiar. He brings his superb thriller to a close with a confrontation between his two foes that is as astonishing as it is satisfying.

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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.