“Oh, we’re on the side of the Angels, Oliver. You just have to remember that angels do God’s dirty work.”

The crusaders of Slough House are a “cluster-fuck” waiting to happen but Joe Country bears no resemblance to the real world, so says the author… (CrimeFest, 2019). Tongue in cheek I think – the novel is an insightful reflection on the state of the nation, the modern political malaise, and most notably the grotesque that is Brexit. Of course, you can enjoy Joe Country without worrying too much about the political undertones if you so desire, it’s a top-notch thriller by any standard, but engage and it’s a deeper experience. Joe Country takes a flamethrower to the smug self-satisfaction of the British political establishment and the delusion that Britain is some how a moral, benevolent and benign society. Like le Carré’s canon, Herron’s Slow Horses novels reflect wider societal concerns, this is a vision of Britain 2019 and it’s poignant and scary.

Herron walks on water, literally – I mean literarily. Reports of the demise of the spy novel were premature, although it did hit the skids for a while in the 1990s. Now it’s a vibrant and relevant art form and Mick Herron is the keeper of the flame (he’s not alone though: also see Charles Cummins, Alan Judd and Edward Wilson).

Herron’s jokes are the glue that binds the pages of this novel. Nobody does black humour quite like him; dry barbed humour on every page – comedy carpet bombing. Ripe one liners you need to discover for yourself because context is everything. Herron could have been a gag man for Bob Hope in a previous life. It’s a pleasure to savour the quick wit, see the sacred cows skewered, and the establishment in all its pomposity and complacency lampooned. A kind of Yes Minister meets In The Thick Of It for the secret services. The champion of truth is satirical farce. Yet, when the action gets going it’s tense and dark and brutal, murder isn’t a trope here, it’s dirty and painful and loss has consequences for the surviving characters. Herron is a rare writer of spy fiction for the way that grief pays forward, one novel to the next. It’s a motivating force in Joe Country, it opens a fissure that draws the characters into the abyss.

Herron has made the point that he’s an outsider not a former spy, his research doesn’t run to secret archives and he creates his own terminology, and yet, even spy fiction aficionados believe he nails it – it’s plausible. The motivation of characters has always been fundamental to a great spy story and much of the plot in Joe Country stems from the internecine rivalries, personal ambitions, jealousies and character flaws of the Slow Horses. They are also manipulated by their puppet masters in Regents Park (the men and women of Slough House are ill-served by their masters). These are real people and the interplay could be any office – with the added tension of guns and bullets and drastic consequences, some fatal. The novel opens with a violent event but soon settles into a state of the union on Slough House and the team, this isn’t merely a who’s who (a recap), Herron is cuing the story by getting into their motivations. The Slow Horses are led by Jackson Lamb, the sins that banished him to Slough House are obscure, he’s weighed down by self-loathing, is cruel to the people around him and profoundly angry with the world, and he’s the boss! Jackson is no lamb to the slaughter, more he leads lambs to the slaughter (who knows more of his backstory may be in the wings for a future Slough House adventure). He’s not likeable, he’s the kind of man who wouldn’t think twice about giving a sober alcoholic a drink, or even a reason to drink. If there’s a lesson, other than that the enemy is not always who we imagine it to be, it’s that “our” side, if not ourselves, are just as dangerous to our interests.

Herron’s novels are intelligent and thought provoking, he’s an exceptional writer, truly inventive, full of verve and style, inventive and original. His writing sharp as a tack, there are no wasted words. The way past events and their emotional consequences feed into Joe Country is inspired, the stories and asides from past adventurers are drawn to the centre of the stage. It feels organic, not forced or heavily plotted (spy fiction is usually plotted to death because of the need for logical problem solving). This freedom is, of course, an illusion but very cleverly crafted. Herron masters the kind of looseness and natural flow in the story/character arcs that works so well in William Boyd novels. Joe Country is a classy thriller, dark and mischievous and the cross fertilisation with the nasty real world adds bite. Herron is a master of the sleight of hand, of misleading the reader with red herrings, the reader’s expectations are constantly confounded.

Watching this cast of misfits, reprobates, damaged individuals, loose cannons, in short ordinary people, play the blame game, pass the buck and create chaos by giving free rein to their arrogance, stupidity and mendacity is like watching a car crash, over and over. Yet, begrudgingly you can’t help liking some of them, even if you never fully trust any of them and bear in mind they have a tendency to die. Herron kills off his main characters with the regularity of Game of Thrones.

Herron is the natural heir to Anthony Price, who sadly died recently, for his off-beat characters; le Carré, for his wider vision of society reflected in the spy world; and Robert Littell and Graham Greene, for understanding how powerful a tool comedy is for the spy story. He has developed and refined those traits. Maybe comedy is the only way of making sense of this mad world and staying sane. Thank god for Herron’s cynicism and his cold eye, its a tonic.

It all starts in winter – the best way to cover their tracks is to burn down the barn, for a while at least the police will assume it’s local kids up to no good. This job wasn’t meant to be difficult, the opposition a bunch of rejects nicknamed the Slow Horses. But now there are two bodies inside the burning barn.

Slough House, with its nondescript exterior and flaking interior is situated on Aldersgate Street. Roddy Ho (‘still the brain pumping Clever through Slough House’) has eyes on the new boy Lech, Alec Wicinski’s, what’s his story? Lech knows he’s being watched, he’ll fix the nosey bastard. Louisa Guy, a bit lost since her lover Min Harper was killed, answers his phone to his ex-wife Clare. What could Clare want, she can’t know, can she? There’s a scream in the background – Lech’s revenge on Roddy. It begins to occur to Lech that he checked a name for a colleague just before someone planted kiddie porn on his computer, the name was flagged. One way or another he is going to find out what happened. Louise meets up with Clare, her son, Lucas, has gone missing, the police aren’t interested, it’s clear to Louise that he’s done a runner. Then Clare says:

“I thought you might think of something. Not as a favour to me, or even to Lucas. But you were fucking Min weren’t you? I’d have hoped that counted for something.”

Louisa is going to have to look into it now.

Diane Taverner, lady Di, is the new First Desk at Regents Park and she intends to make some changes. That’s not good for anyone who crossed her on her way up and Emma Flyte is first on the list, Emma is head dog, internal security service, beautiful and young, but that’s not relevant. Di wants to shuffle Emma off to Slough House but she tells her to stick the job and that’s how she has time to help Louise find Lucas.

When Charles Partner, traitor, died (suicide or murder?), he pulled Catherine down with him. Catherine Standish is drinking again. You would too if you had to read the reports Louisa Guy and River Cartwright submit.

River’s grandfather is being buried. The whole crew is there and Frank Harkness, ex-CIA, and persona-non-grata in Britain, but also River’s father, turns up, there’s a scene. Harkness disappears but Lamb will stop at nothing to get revenge for past grievances and so begins a man hunt.

It’s not that the slow horses are bad at following rules it’s that they don’t care and havoc is about to break out again. What’s it all got to do with an orgy in Wales, arms deals, the German BND, and machinations closer to home? You’ll have a lot of fun finding out.

Paul Burke 5/5

Joe Country by Mick Herron
John Murray 9781473657441 hbk Jun 2019