Book review – Spies!

I’m a big fan of spy novels and have recently enjoyed Charles Cumming’s series of novels featuring Thomas Kell, one of which I reviewed last year.  I wanted to have a break from Thomas Kell and was pointed in the direction of Mick Herron and his Jackson Lamb books.  There are four Jackson Lamb books (and one novella) and I recently read a couple of them back to back:  Slow Horses and Dead Lions.


The books are also know as the Slough House series, named after the book’s fictitious building housing the MI5 agents, led by Jackson Lamb.  Slough House is where dead beat MI5 agents are put out to pasture, having screwed up at some point in the career.  The inhabitants of Slough House are dubbed ‘Slow Horses’ by their MI5 HQ counterparts (you’d hope for a better pun, wouldn’t you!).  As you might expect, the books follow some kind of formula: the slow horses end up having to contend with an incident, overcoming their dislike of one another and their perceived incompetence to win against all the odds!  The first book focusses on a beheading to be beamed over the internet.  As is often the case, there’s more to this than meets the eye!  It’s hard to say what the second is about without giving anything away, so I won’t.

The Jackson Lamb vs. Slough House thing is interesting.  Jackson Lamb is by far the most interesting character.  An out of shape, burnt out cold warrior who we learn has seen action over the east side of the Berlin Wall.  I read Dead Lions hoping that it ventured into Lamb’s past.  It did, but not enough to my liking.  Both are well written, and don’t take themselves too seriously, getting bogged down in detail, which is where I think John Le Carre’s books suffer.  I’d recommend both and plan on reading the others at some point.  But if I had to recommend Charles Cumming or Mick Herron, I’d have to go with Cumming.

I’ve read a few Robert Harris books: Fatherland, Imperium (reviewed last year) and The Ghost.  I’d recommend all of them and was expecting great things of An Officer and a Spy (2014).  The book is based on a true story, taking place at the turn of the twentieth century.  A man, Dreyfus, has been convicted of treason only for a rising star of the army, Picquart, just appointed to run the intelligence section, to question the decision.  Picquart’s one-man crusade to determine and prove Dreyfus’s innocence sets Picquart against the army’s top brass and politicians.  While well written, the book takes a while to get going and it wasn’t until way after the half-way mark that it felt like the plot was gathering momentum.  Moreover, I didn’t really care for any of the characters, especially Picquart, who appeared particularly two dimensional.

Regrettably, I wouldn’t recommend this book.  It hasn’t however put me off Harris and I look forward to reading Lustrum, the follow-up to Cicero.