Book Review: Slow Horses

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Slow Horses, by Mick Herron, is the first in a series of modern day spy novels featuring members of the British intelligence service put out to grass in a unit nicknamed Slough House. Their banishment to this premises is a punishment for a variety of on the job cock-ups and misdemeanours. Amongst them is River Cartwright, a young man harbouring bitter resentment at being shouldered with the blame following a failed operation. The unit is overseen by Lamb Cartwright, an overweight and often repellent individual who is not as incompetent as he encourages people to think.

The inaccurately named operatives of Slough House are incensed when one of their number is tasked with covertly obtaining information from a disgraced journalist. It is understood that they are given only the most menial and mind-numbing tasks, although each hopes that eventually they will be permitted a return to active service at Regents Park. River regarded his most recent job, collecting and investigating the contents of a rubbish sack, as simply another unpleasant test of his willingness to follow orders. When it ties in with what looks like real spy work he determines to find out more.

All attention then turns to the abduction of a young man whose bound and hooded image is uploaded onto the internet alongside a threat to behead him within forty-eight hours. River sees this as a chance to redeem himself but is denied the opportunity to become involved. Wondering if the abduction could in any way be related to the journalist, from whose home the rubbish sack was taken, he takes matters into his own hands. When his actions go catastrophically wrong each member of Slough House becomes involved.

Unsurprisingly, there is nepotism and corruption at the highest level. It is still shocking how far certain powerful people will go to further their personal agendas. The slow horses are not slick and efficient spies, but they are capable of using their training and wits. Their manoeuvrings are often unexpected but gratifying to read.

This is a tightly written, sardonic and grimly prescient work of spy fiction. It is also rather fun in a stylishly mordacious way. The author ensures that readers get behind his flawed and often flailing creations. This was my first foray into his work; I hope it won’t be my last.

 

Book Review: The Unfortunate Englishman

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The Unfortunate Englishman, by John Lawton, is the second book in the author’s Joe Wilderness series. It is a spy thriller set in Europe after the Second World War when the Cold War was at its height. I have not read the first book, Then We Take Berlin, and believe I would have enjoyed this latest instalment more had I done so. There are numerous references to incidents from the first book, character history that may have assisted in my understanding of loyalties and generated more empathy than I was able to muster, particularly for the men.

Spy thrillers are not my usual fare. I enjoy the action and escapism of such stories on screen, although not the sexism. I rarely read the books which inspire the adaptations so was looking forward to perusing this contribution to the genre from an author who garners high regard from respected sources. Having read the book my advice is thus: if this author photograph from the back flap of the book appeals to you then so may the book. I find the placement of the person on the left distasteful. The book is undoubtedly well written, but I like to think that men can be better than the ones who populate its pages.

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The story opens with a shooting in Berlin in 1963. The protagonist, Joe Wilderness, is found beside a woman bleeding out from a gunshot wound and is taken into police custody. His release is facilitated by his former boss and father-in-law, Burne-Jones, on condition he returns to his job in MI6. Joe Wilderness is once again to be a spook, only now he will be required to work behind a desk rather than in the field.

Two characters are then introduced in some detail. One is a Russian spy who is assigned a stolen identity that will enable him to live and work in England. The other is an Englishman who is approached by Burne-Jones and willingly goes undercover to Moscow to steal military secrets. Both are ensnared by their covert alter egos, relishing the life that hides what they really are. Both play a game with lover’s lives leading to the deaths of others which they struggle to confront.

Certain elements of the story are glossed over. Joe Wilderness has a mistress, Nell, as well as a wife. Another character enjoys a ménage à trois. It all felt too much like a male fantasy. Whilst there are feisty and intelligent female characters the men seemed too brutish to empathise with. The plot was captivating but certain characters stereotypically two dimensional.

What I did enjoy was the history, and the asides on class prejudice and social mobility. The action moves between London, Berlin, Moscow and Vienna during the years when they were being remodelled to encompass the political debris created by the outcome of the Second World War. During the coarse of the story the Berlin Wall is put in place and the aims and attitudes of the various government representatives made for good reading.

This is a well constructed tale that fits the mould of spy thrillers I have watched on screen. I would therefore recommend it to fans of the genre. It is a fandom I am unlikely to join.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Grove Press UK.

Book Review: The Travelers

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The Travelers, by Chris Pavone, is a slickly constructed spy thriller that grabs the reader’s attention from the off and doesn’t let go. It is a book that deserves the much overused accolade, unputdownable. From first page to last it did not disappoint.

The protagonist is a thirty-something American journalist, Will Rhodes, who travels the world for a prestigious travel magazine. He and his wife, Chloe, are trying for a baby without success. Little about their marriage seems to be going right. The house they inherited is all but condemned as unfit for habitation and their debts are mounting. His constant travel limits Will’s ability to try to put things right.

On a trip to France he meets a beautiful Australian just starting out in journalism. Will struggles to resist her charms. He soon discovers that she is not not what she seems, becoming embroiled in something he does not understand but which promises to ease his financial worries. The deeper he goes into this murky world the higher the cost to both his personal safety and his peace of mind. He is lying to his wife and she knows something is wrong.

Chloe also has secrets. So does Will’s boss at the magazine, a long time friend. It is unclear who each of these people is working for.

The plot twists and turns as Will’s involvement threatens to unravel decades of undercover operations thereby putting him in danger. Somewhere a secretive surveillance centre is keeping track of every phone call, credit card transaction and travel detail. Assignations are monitored and security cameras studied, but who is watching who and why?

The splash of glamour, the lure of lucre and the idea that undesirables can be disposed of are all present and correct but this is still a tense and compelling read. Somehow the author takes all the familiar tropes and injects them with vitality.

Well written, entertaining escapism. As close to an all action movie as a book can get.

This review is a stop on The Travelers Blog Tour. Do check out the other posts, detailed below.

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My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher.