Novel: Bad Actors by Mick Herron

Mick Herron’s Slough House books walk a deft, zig-zaggy line between comedy and tragedy, comedic zip and bleak darkness. After the heartrending final moments of Slough House, it’s no surprise that Bad Actors (2022) rebounds to zany action-adventure territory. If the end result lacks the previous volume’s focused power, it remains an engrossing read, full of excitement, wit, and page-turning questions.

The political melee this time revolves around Sophie de Greer, a brilliant Swiss superforecaster who has become a trusted advisor of the Prime Minister’s government. Her mysterious disappearance prompts the PM’s powerful, unelected fixer Anthony Sparrow to launch an investigation. The man entrusted with the inquiry is ousted MI5 chief Claude Whelan, who while no longer active in the security services is familiar enough with recent protocols to pursue the case. Among those protocols is “Waterproof,” an illegal rendition op so controversial it cost a previous Firsk Desk their job. Has it been activated again, this time by the ambitious current chief, Diana Taverner? That’s the operating assumption, but as usual, there are a lot more moving pieces to consider, which—once Jackson Lamb and his slow horses get involved—leads to another chaotic bout of internecine battle within the brutal post-Brexit political establishment, fueled by nefarious foreign influences.

Will Herron ever run out of narrative rope in this series? Not if Bad Actors is any indication. Indeed, if anything, even eight volumes in he continues to make the convoluted twists and turns of espionage plotting look effortless. This time, he shakes things up structurally with a nonlinear act progression. After Slough House’s efficient suspense, Bad Actors leans more into violent chaos, resulting in a breathless, rambling pace at times, and plenty of spontaneous Shirley Dander aggression. But angles, schemes, and mysteries continue to abound, all delivered to another erudite, satisfying outro. As in previous volumes, the swirl of action resolves neatly even as new questions are introduced—the most notable one being, in this case, is this the final Slough House novel? Herron seems to want us to think that may be possible, but if he’s anything like his characters, I suspect he may have another card or two up his sleeve.

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