SPIES, SPIES, SPIES! – THREE RECENT ESPIONAGE NOVELS BY MICK HERRON, JACK BEAUMONT AND MICHAEL KURLAND
Mick Herron’s Slough House is probably one of the most eagerly awaited spy novels of 2021.
The seventh book in Herron’s highly acclaimed series about Jackson Lamb and the slow horses of Slough House, it finds the team in a higher level of agitation than usual. They are still reeling from the bloodbath at the end of Joe Country, and it now seems that they have been wiped off the MI5 database. Some of them are also certain that they are being followed. When death strikes former members, it seems that the slow horses are being targeted, despite Lamb’s protestation that:
“they’ve never needed to kill us. I mean, fucking look at us. What would be the point?”
To give away any more of this exquisite plot would be a crime, other than to say that, as usual, the Service’s First Desk, Diana Taverner, is busily plotting away in the background. This time, however, it seems that she has gone too far in accepting the help of arch-manipulator Peter Judd in mounting a retaliatory attack against the Russians in response to the Novichok poisonings.
As with the previous books in the series, the plotting is superb and Herron adroitly brings together his various strands in a clever and idiosyncratic manner. There are the requisite twists and turns, and there is probably a higher level of suspense and action, than in the previous books, as Slough House steadily moves to its thudding conclusion. The dialogue sparkles and Lamb is in brilliant repulsive form, especially during his encounter with a gay dwarf, who plays an important role in the story. My favourite line, however, surprisingly belongs to Roddy Ho towards the end of the novel and cannot be revealed here.
The characterisations are nicely nuanced and very witty, especially those external to the slow horses. Lamb is perhaps becoming too much of a caricature of himself, although in couple of scenes Herron skillfully reminds us that he still has the tough street smarts of a good agent. Regular readers of the series will also enjoy the return, albeit sometimes very brief, of characters from the earlier books.
In all, a very enjoyable read that also effectively uses its pre-COVID Brexit background to make some astute reflections on the state of society, especially in Britain. Four and a half stars out of five!
Slough House is released on 4 February. Thanks to the publishers and NetGalley for an advanced electronic copy of the book.
Very different from Slough House, but nearly as enjoyable, is the debut novel by Jack Beaumont, The Frenchman.
Beaumont is apparently the pseudonym of a former French intelligence operative who now lives in Australia, and his debut book filled with a lot of convincingly detailed spy tradecraft and seemingly insider knowledge of the French security services.
The story opens with a jolting prelude in Singapore and Pakistan, before moving to an exciting operation in Palermo, aimed at disrupting a new terrorist organisation. The mission goes terribly wrong and leaves Alec de Payns, an operative in the secretive Y Division of the French foreign intelligence service (DGSE), suspecting that there is a leak in his team. That suspicion grows as de Payns is tasked to investigate a heavily secured biological plant in Pakistan that may be producing a weaponised bacteria capable of killing millions.
The Frenchman is a confidently plotted and well written novel, presumably in English as no translator is listed. Beaumont moves his story along at a good pace and the book builds to a violent climax in Paris, complete with the usual concluding twists.
The book excels in its detailed descriptions of spycraft, the politics of French Intelligence operations and the security measures taken by agents. In the main this is seamlessly woven into the plot, although it appears overly elaborate at times. This seemingly insider grasp of spy technique also gives the novel a convincing shine of credibility and Beaumont uses it well to produce some very tense scenes. His depiction of the operation in Pakistan and its fall-out is particularly outstanding and very tense. He is also good at describing the foreign locations through which de Payns passes and conveying the atmosphere in a few telling descriptions.
His characters are well crafted and are not the one dimensional, gun-toting super heroes to be found in some spy fiction. He is also very good at articulating the personal cost of spying, both on the families of the French agents and those foreign assets that they use.
Overall, a surprisingly enjoyable book that kept me well entertained.
Four stars out five!
The Frenchman was released in Australia in January 2021. The release dates outside of Australia are not clear.
Thanks to the Canberra Weekly and Allen & Unwin for a copy of the book.
Finally, Michael Kurland’s Whatever The Cost is a solid World War II thriller about a secret Allied mission in 1939.
Counter-intelligence agent Captain Jacob Welker is handed a special assignment from President Roosevelt. Einstein believes that the Nazis are aware of a new super weapon made possible by advances in atomic science and is concerned that the Germans will win the race to develop an atomic weapon. Roosevelt wants Welker to go to Europe in an unofficial capacity and extract these scientists. Meanwhile Professor Josef Brun is already on the run from the SS, with a suitcase of secret documents that could change the course of the war. Enlisting the help of his British friends in Paris, Lord Geoffrey and Patricia Saboy, Welker must find Brun and the other scientists before it is too late.
Kurland mixes a variety of viewpoints in this engaging tale about spying and secret missions in the early days of the war. The various storylines in Paris are agreeably light and are balanced by the tension of Brun’s plight in Germany. Some of the sub-plots serve no real purpose, but keep the story bubbling along.
Kurland is adept at quickly sketching characters and the scenes in Germany, as Brun realises that his former colleagues are being rounded up by the Gestapo, ring true and are quite suspenseful. The dialogue is serviceable and the banter between the Saboys and Welker is witty and amusing, but very stagey.
A light, easy flowing novel that provides a pleasant reading experience, while also throwing light on some forgotten aspects of the early stages of the War.
Three and a half stars out of five!
Whatever The Cost is published in the United Kingdom on 29 January 2021.
Thanks to Severn House and NetGalley for an advanced electronic copy of the book.