Genre: Thriller. Goodreads meta-data: 3.84 / 5 by 4852 litizens.
Verdict: 5, a classic of its kind.
MI5 agent Cartwright fails a training exercise and is exiled to the outer darkness of Slough House, which like all that follows is not what it seems. It is neither in Slough nor is it a house. In this world nothing is as it seems. Nothing and no one.
Cartwright, a grandson of Callan who is an MI5 legend, and much of that organisation’s propose now is terrorism of one kind of another, but when all the hedges are said and done, the Islamic kind. Though the office politics uses the dead language of McKinsey speak that is but a screen for a far more primitive and brutal kind of competition for status, turf, and career, which is waged more seriously than that against terrorism.
Spoiler alert. It is beyond me to describe the book without giving away the plot. Read no further if apt to read the book. STOP.
Cartwright finds there at the remote station in the outer darkness of London other MI5 rejects who are assigned meaningless work to keep them busy and to encourage them to resign from the Service. They number about a dozen under the sleepy gaze of Lamb upstairs. Unkept, unshaven, unwashed, untidy Lamb dozes the day away and drinks the night away. HIs supervision seems to be part of the punishment. This set-up does sound like the McKinsey seminar on managing-out the KPI failures, by sending them to the circles of Dante’s Hell otherwise known as training seminars and workshops until they crack. This method is necessary since it is no longer possible to dismiss someone for incompetence. Discrimination against the incompetent is verboten. Incompetence is a syndrome for which the society is responsible, not the individual, their barristers will argue. Amen.
The twist in the tale is that whitebread anti-terrorist vigilantes decide to up the ante by kidnapping a London schoolboy of Pakistani derivation and decapitate him on an internet feed. The three villains are as nasty and stupid as the target demographic of 7Mate. In hindsight there are several false notes. The kidnapping is too smooth for these bumblers to have managed. Moreover, the internet feed is technologically several miles above their ability with light switches. Still it gets things rolling.
In reaction there are wheels within wheels within wheels where some of the senior people in the Service use this event for career purposes, and worse. When things go wrong, as inevitably they must to make it a thriller, the best way to conceal those careerist manipulations is to blame the whole mess on the expendable denizens of Slough House. This turn of events rouses the sleeping lion that is Lamb to action and he motivates (most of) his crew to defend themselves from their own. This brief transformation occurs when he points out their likely fate if they wait for the blame bat to splatter them across the floor of a secret and illegal prison in Bulgaria which does not exist, officially.
‘Most’ not all, because three of the crew are only too ready to perjure and prostitute themselves to sell out Lamb and the others for the promise of a promotion. That corporate immorality certainly sounds plausible in any large organisation where backstabbing is the way ahead and scruples are not quantified among the KPIs. It is comforting to know that this is a general phenomenon.
Motivated by survival, the remainder of the crew takes action. Most of it is an internal conflict among factions in MI5 which has burgeoned with a budget swollen to match the anti-terrorism rhetoric of the age. And with a political class that does not want to know unpleasant things but wants them to go away. On the penchant for 'smooth things' see Isaiah 30:10.
Other characters include a rabid journalist whose extremism has gone even beyond the Fox News pale, if that is possible. That seemed another false note. There is no line of decency that Faux News will not cross, lemmings in tow. In turn, this journo has contacts in the respectable right of the Conservative Party in the person of an aspiring Leader who has verisimilitude.
It is a thriller and there is an axe, a ticking package, and a pistol, and the body count is three, but most of the decisive events occur in offices, albeit once after a beating, and the files do yield the ore of truth. Well, the body count comes to four, because by the sheerest of coincidences after the journo threatens the leadership aspirant he meets an untimely end a few days later on a zebra crossing. That problem went away.
The kidnap victim proves equal to the circumstance in unexpected ways that are yet plausible. Ditto the other characters.
That is the achievement of Herron to vivify a gallery of diverse and credible characters. The telling is that truncated and cross-cut style of the thriller that I dislike but in this instance it works, and I swallowed my objection as I turned the pages. At the start my aim to satisfy the recommendation of a friend, but soon I was reading under my own power.
It sounds like John Le Carré’s Cold War spy novels and it is. When the Cold War ended Le Carré tried other settings and the ones I read did not hit the mark for me. Without Smiley and Karla, well it all seemed like dog paddling in the shallow end.
Herron brings that grey world of spy and counterspy to the War on Terror with great panache and insight. Alec Leamas would fit in at Slough House. Indeed he might be the model for Lamb. However, reflection on the Cold War versions, not forgetting Len Deighton, brings to light a new element and that is the pathological dysfunction of the organisation. In Smiley’s world there were traitors like Bill Hayden, and hellbent careerists like Saul Enderby, too, but they were not yet ready to eat their own for new office furniture. They were many things but not the vampires, cannibals, and zombies that comprise MI5 in these pages.
The book offers a primer in the tradecraft of MI5, London Rules, joes, achievers, dogs, suits, black files, street walkers, grey books, and the like. I am sucker for that stuff and ate it with a spoon.
‘The List’ is a novella that I read it about an hour and a half. It is cut from the same cloth as above, but the ambit is much smaller. My reading was slowed by guffaws and snorts at the characterisations and descriptions. Herron can turn a phrase, pin a butterfly to a board, nail a metaphor, all with the mordant wit of a bored viper.
In this brief tale, Five outsmarts itself in an exercise of double and triple duplicity. Lamb smells it but keeps silent for his own reasons, letting fools (who think they are so smart and so cynical) rush in. They do.