Novel: Dead Lions by Mick Herron

If Slow Horses was the tempting bait, Mick Herron’s Dead Lions (2013) is the enthralling hook, not just a welcome return to a clever milieu but a next-level improvement. This is the second novel in the Slough House series about a dilapidated MI5 outstation where the service exiles its undesirables, hoping to frustrate them into quitting. Important things tend not to happen at Slough House, where deeply unpleasant boss Jackson Lamb berates the many misfits on his staff, including shrewd, alcoholic assistant Catherine Standish, misanthropic IT genius Roderick Ho, mistake-prone lovers Louisa Guy and Min Harper, and River Cartwright, the son of spydom royalty whose notorious training exercise failure made ignominious history. Occasionally, though, circumstances conspire to test the untapped potential of these tragic mediocrities, and this time it begins with the death of a retired spook named Dickie Bow, whose quiet demise appears to be a clandestine murder by untraceable poison. Lamb investigates Bow’s death, which leads down a rabbit-hole of layered fabrications that starts to look like a deliberately transparent Russian operation to expose a sleeper agent in the English countryside. This investigation, which eventually engages the rest of Slough House, coincides with the seconding of Louisa and Min to a sketchy security detail for a meeting between a Russian oligarch and an ambitious MI5 officer. These two unlikely scenarios activate the Slow Horses once again, propelling their mundane office-pool lives into a race against time to stop devious Russian opponents looking to strike at western democracy.

Slow Horses was solid wheelhouse stuff for me, an infectious mix of spy-fi office politics, wry humor, and intricate thriller plotting. I’d have settled for more of the same in Dead Lions, but instead I ended up marveling at the skillful craft, examining the writing from different angles. Omniscient, multi-protagonist viewpoint is difficult to pull off without looking clumsy. Herron is a master at it, using nifty narrative devices to zoom in and out of POVs in a way that is striking and almost cinematic. (The way he introduces the denizens of Slough House at the beginning, and then plays them off at the end, is especially impressive—told from the point of view of imaginary animals touring the offices.) Another asset is the deft way the author delivers exactly the kinds of characters, plots, and situations spy fans crave, while also slickly acknowledging the ridiculousness of the intelligence world, so that the novels work both as straight spy fiction and knowing, cheeky satires of it. It’s a fine line to walk, but the balance is perfect. In this case, it’s in service to a satisfying, multifaceted plot that is exquisitely constructed, delivering the thrills and intrigues of the genre with unexpected laughs and commentary on the inherent destructiveness of the angling gamesmanship so central to such torturous clandestine contests. Overall it’s an extremely satisfying read: fast-paced, cynical, funny, and—for me, anyway—totally spellbinding.

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