Review: Joe Country by Mick Herron

9781473657458This finely wrought page-turner deepens Jackson Lamb’s legend and illuminates more of his shadowy world, all the while cementing Mick Herron’s place among the top tier of espionage writers.

Most books in Mick Herron’s Slough House series — Joe Country being the sixth instalment — function as standalones, but the latest rewards readers who’ve followed Jackson Lamb’s ‘Slow Horses’ from the very beginning; even characters who’ve featured primarily in Herron’s two novellas play important roles here. The Slow Horses are, of course, MI5 operatives banished from the higher echelons of Regent’s Park to a dilapidated London building for a variety of shortcomings and vices. Think le Carré’s The Circus — only this is the exact opposite; an outpost for those deemed incompetent, forced to complete mundane tasks under the irreverent eye of Jackson Lamb: one of the most enigmatic and abominable protagonists in the genre.

Joe Country follows three primary plot threads, while dipping into the lives of its multifaceted and fully-drawn cast: Louisa Guy is contacted by the widow of Min Harper, Louisa’s former colleague and lover, who wants Louisa to find her missing 17-year-old son, Lucas; new recruit Lech Wicinski, a leper even among outcasts, is determined to uncover why he’s been downgraded into one of Lamb’s minions; and River Cartwright’s estranged father — a rogue CIA agent — has returned, hired by a high-ranking politician to eliminate evidence of a potential scandal.

Anyone familiar with Mick Herron’s masterfully cynical take on the world of espionage will know what to expect from Joe Country. Lucid exposition, polished prose, and a story that builds slowly and crescendos brilliantly with truly shocking deaths, and a denouement that suggests even greater complications on the horizon for Lamb and his joes. Forget James Bond and Jason Bourne; Herron’s characters are flawed and breakable, prone to mistakes in the field and in their personal lives. More often than not, when the bullets start flying, the Slow Horses are more likely to miss than hit.

The spy novel is alive and well and Mick Herron is among those breathing new life into the genre. Once again he has proven himself to be a world-class practitioner of the espionage thriller, and the Slough House novels might just be the best series being published right now.

ISBN: 9781473657458
Format: Paperback / softback
Pages: 352
Imprint: John Murray Publishers Ltd
Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton General Division
Publish Date: 20-Jun-2019
Country of Publication: United Kingdom

Review: The Man Between by Charles Cumming

ManBetweenAt first I wondered whether its setup might be a little too on the nose — a spy novelist drawn into real-world espionage — but Charles Cumming’s sophisticated treatment of the narrative, combined with his polished prose, make The Man Between a winner. This is a taut and exciting tale of spy craft, reminiscent of genre masters  John le Carré, Mick Herron and Daniel Silva, that’ll have you turning the pages in a frenzy to learn the fates of its characters.

Kit Carradine is a successful thriller writer who has grown tired of days spent in front of his desktop computer, conjuring fictional scenarios for imagined heroes. He envies the life of his father, a British spy whose career was cut agonisingly short because of Kim Philby’s betrayal —  so when British Intelligence invites him to enter the clandestine world of espionage for the good of Queen and Country, Kit willingly becomes embroiled in a terrifying plot to destabilise the West. Not that he expected to play such a vital role in proceedings; or in fact become a pawn in a game played by duelling intelligence services.

Lara Bartok  is a leading figure in Resurrection, a violent revolutionary movement whose attacks on prominent right-wing politicians have spread hatred and violence throughout the West. Kit’s objective is to make contact with her in Morocco — a simple handover, nothing more — and return to his life as though nothing happened. Of course, things don’t pan out as Kit, or his handler (who has secrets of his own) expect.

Kit Carradine is an interesting protagonist.  He is genre-defying, in that he is a civilian thrust into the life of a spy, but acutely aware he’s living the realisation of a trope of countless thrillers we’ve all read. Having made a career of imagining narratives and writing his characters out of dangerous scenarios, he has unconsciously trained himself to have the mental fortitude for the life of a spy; a quick-thinker, often able to talk his way out of trouble. But there are occasions when Kit comes across as a little too cool-headed, and his persona a tad contrived; when he seems impossibly placid given the life-or-death situation he funds himself in. Thankfully Cumming rarely allows the reader time to draw breath; just when you begin to question (and envy) and deliberate over Kit’s exceptional bravery, the story veers in a new direction. And ultimately, this is a genre that demands, at the very least, a slight willingness to accept the improbable.

The Man Between is a smart, gripping, torn-from-the-headlines page-turner. And quite possibly the beginning of a new series, which you’ll want to jump on board with from the start.

4 Star

ISBN: 9780008200329
Format: Paperback
Pages: 368
Imprint: HarperCollins Publishers Ltd
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Publish Date: 5-Jun-2018
Country of Publication: United Kingdom

 

 

 

Review: Firefly by Henry Porter

9781787470538.jpgEight years after writing The Dying Light, Henry Porter returns with Firefly; a fast-moving, intelligent thriller that proves his writing and the appeal of his characters are as fresh as ever.

Henry Porter deserves to be revered among the greats of spy fiction. Readers of Charles Cumming, Mick Herron and, yes, even the grandmaster himself, John le Carré, will bask in Porter’s backlist — the Robert Harland series in particular —  and his latest, Firefly, will surely be remembered as one of 2018’s great espionage novels.

Firefly introduces Luc Samson, a former MI6 agent, now private eye and missing persons expert. Fluent in Arabic thanks to his Lebanese heritage, Samson was booted from the Secret Intelligence Service because of his gambling habit, which he assures himself — and others — is calculated and measured, despite the size of the bets. But he’s the best man for the operation MI6 has planned, and so Samson is brought back in from the cold, tasked with locating a thirteen-year-old refugee, codenamed Firefly, who has made his way from Syria to Greece, and soon the mountains of  Macedonia. He possesses vital intelligence relating to an ISIS terror cell, and details of their plans; which means they’re hunting young Naji Touma, too.

On a rudimentary level, this is a chase novel: two competing forces hunting down a young boy who, at the age of thirteen, has already witnessed too much death and devastation. The narrative bounces between Samson’s perspective and Naji’s, and deliciously details their near-misses and the boy’s encounters with danger. It’s proper white-knuckle stuff for the most part, and only once threatens to jump the shark, when Naji and a new friend, Ifkar, are confronted by a bear. Thankfully most of the skirmishes are more grounded than this example, and Naji’s desperate, hopeless struggle to survive is what truly makes the book thrum, and gives it heart.

The action bristles and the characters seduce: Firefly is an intricate, layered thriller that delves into the Syrian refugee crisis. Brilliantly set up, tautly executed, and brutally human, Porter’s latest is as engrossing and well-crafted a thriller as you are likely to read this year.

ISBN: 9781787470507
Format: Paperback (234mm x 153mm x mm)
Pages: 400
Imprint: Quercus Publishing
Publisher: Quercus Publishing
Publish Date: 29-May-2017
Country of Publication: United Kingdom

The Deceivers by Alex Berenson

9780399176166A suspenseful, professional-grade geopolitical thriller, which features all the action and intrigue readers of Daniel Silva and Charles Cumming demand.

The Deceivers, the twelfth novel in the John Wells series, is actually my first, but certainly won’t be my last. Although its premise and archetypes are bracingly familiar, this is an expertly packaged globe-spanning thriller, with plenty of page-turning propulsion and a dangling climax that makes Berenson’s next book a must-read.

The Deceivers opens with small-time drug dealer Ahmed Shakir fooled into participating in a terrorist attack at a Dallas baseball game, which sees him, and hundreds of others, killed in a mammoth explosion. President Vinny Duto summons ex–CIA agent John Wells to travel to Bogotá, Colombia, to investigate a lead on the attack. It’s clear Wells and Duto have a long history — obviously explored in earlier books — and I can’t wait to delve backwards to see what’s lead to their shared animosity. As Wells investigates, Senator Paul Birman,  the greatest threat to Duto in the next election, is seeing his popularity spike as he spits after the Dallas attack. But Birman’s success is fundamentally down to the intelligence of his cousin Paul, a decorated war veteran and, it turns out, a spy for the Russians. Meanwhile, former Army sniper Tom Miller is compelled by the beautiful newcomer to his life, Allie, to utilise his deadly skills on targets of her choosing. All these loosely-connected threads eventually tie together in a bloody, pulse-pounding conclusion.

Alex Berenson’s The Deceivers is grand entertainment, intricately plotted, and timely.

ISBN: 9780399176166
Format: Hardback (229mm x 152mm x mm)
Pages: 432
Imprint: Putnam Publishing Group,U.S.
Publisher: Putnam Publishing Group,U.S.
Publish Date: 6-Feb-2018
Country of Publication: United States

Review: This Is What Happened by Mick Herron

9781473657342When discussing his film Psycho, Alfred Hitchcock explained to Francois Truffaut that he “was directing the viewers… I was playing them, like an organ.” Which is precisely what Mick Herron does in This Is What Happened, shrewdly manipulating the reader, keeping them in suspense right up until the nail-biting finish. What seems at the start to be another in Herron’s long line of successful spy novels seamlessly transforms into an ingenious and intense psychological thriller that what will surely stand as one of the finest thrillers of 2018.

Twenty-six-year-old mail room employee Maggie Barnes is hiding in the lavatories of a 27-story London office building in the middle of the night. She has been recruited by MI5 agent Harvey Wells to upload spyware on the company’s computer network from a USB drive. She is untrained, totally inexperienced, and a nervous wreck; but she is empowered by her mission for Queen and Country, feels good to be doing something meaningful, having found herself isolated in the bustling metropolis of England’s capital. But her mission goes sideways, fast, just as readers would expect, and we are trained, based on years of reading the genre, to assume that her escape from the clutches of this “evil corporation” will be the book’s focus. Which is precisely when Herron pulls the rug out from readers’ feet.

This Is What Happened is not an espionage novel. It is a pared-down, sumptuous, enthralling, propulsive masterclass of suspense with a hard-boiled heart. It’s Hitchcockian, dark and menacing, and intricately-plotted. The kind of book you’ll blow through in a single night.

ISBN: 9781473657342
Format: Paperback (234mm x 153mm x mm)
Pages: 352
Imprint: John Murray Publishers Ltd
Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton General Division
Publish Date: 1-Feb-2018
Country of Publication: United Kingdom

Review: London Rules by Mick Herron

9781473657380.jpgLondon Rules — the fifth book in the Jackson Lamb series — epitomises precisely why Mick Herron’s espionage novels are the new hallmarks of the genre. It is a rousing, provocative — and genuinely funny, at times — political thriller with a  labyrinthine plot that, despite its villains remaining little more than sketches, excels thanks to its large, diverse cast of ‘Slow Horses’ whose personal travails and tribulations add depth to protagonists who are often little more than stock cardboard cutouts.

New readers are welcomed into the world of Slough House, where failed (dubbed incompetent) MI-5 agents are deposited to waste their days, twiddling their thumbs, doing mind-numbing busy work, but it’s readers who’ve been with these characters since Slow Horses who’ll get maximum enjoyment from London Rules. By now, the Slow Horses are entangled in a thick continuity soup, and each book in the series serves as an episodic interlude into their lives, the spotlight shared between various characters. This time around the balance is fairly even, which makes the story’s unravelling all the more nerve-wracking, because Herron has displayed a willingness to kill off characters before, and given the vastness of the cast he’s working with, one can’t help but feel it’s only a matter of time before further reductions are made.

London Rules deals with various plot threads that eventually, quite brilliantly, tie together. While Slow Horse Roddy Ho is targeted for assassination, a string of bizarre, seemingly random terrorist attacks rock the United Kingdom. Meanwhile, Regent’s Park’s First Desk, Claude Whelan, is struggling to protect the hapless prime minister from the MP who orchestrated the Brexit vote, who has his sights set on Number Ten; not to mention the MP’s wife, a tabloid columnist, who’s obliterating Whelan in print; then there’s the soon-to-be mayor of London the Prime Minister has allied himsel with, who has a dark, potentially devastating secret. Poor Whelan, dealing with all of this, while his own deputy, Lady Di Taverner, watches on, waiting for him to stumble. And while these machinations are certainly intriguing and propulsive, it’s how River Cartwright, Catherine Standish, JK Coe and all the others are managing the stresses of their personal lives, and the consequences of their previous missions, that prove the ultimate page-turning factor.

Mick Herron’s novels sit comfortably somewhere between le Carré and Bond: meticulously plotted, deliberately paced, fun, and not overly deep. London Rules is a terrific yarn filled with tension and surprises right to the end. Every instalment in this series is a pleasure to read.

ISBN: 9781473657380
Format: Paperback (235mm x 162mm x 26mm)
Pages: 352
Imprint: John Murray Publishers Ltd
Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton General Division
Publish Date: 8-Feb-2018
Country of Publication: United Kingdom

Review: Need to Know by Karen Cleveland

9780593079607Karen Cleveland’s Need to Know briskly assembles the lives of Vivian and Matt Miller — their happy marriage, their house in the suburbs, their four beautiful children — before eviscerating its veracity with the revelation that Matt is a Russian sleeper agent.

Cleveland’s debut physiological thriller is a whirlwind of  red herrings and reversals, smoothly melded together, whose revelations and consequences intensify to an excruciating level. At a time when bookshop shelves are being proliferated by various iterations of Gone Girl and The Girl on the Train, Need to Know takes what made those domestic noir thrillers tick and meshes those elements with a dash of espionage. It’s a thriller that will appeal as much to fans of Homeland and 24 as Paula Hawkins’ and Gillian Flynn’s blockbuster novels.

Vivian Miller is a CIA analyst tasked with tracking Russian sleeper agents, but unlike most protagonists that proliferate the genre, she also has a home life; and it’s not falling apart. That is, until Vivian hacks her way into the laptop of a Russian handler the agency has been monitoring, and discovers five photographs that identify the handler’s underlings; one of whom is Viv’s husband. Is the information reliable? Is she being toyed with? Is Matt friend or foe; at all the man she thought she had married? Should she turn him in, or obliterate the data, maintain the status quo? Every decision Vivian makes seems to be the wrong one, and very soon, she’s a puppet on strings, doing somebody’s bidding. The ultimate question: who is the actual puppeteer?

Need to Know rockets along at a great clip, flashing backwards and forwards in time, underling some of Matt’s questionable behaviour at one moment, then reminding the reader how stellar a husband and father he is a few pages later. Cleveland manipulates the reader with aplomb, highlighting the impossibility of knowing those closest to us. Its pace means some characters are a tad underdeveloped — there to propel the story to its next juncture than exist with any depth — and a couple of moments when the narrative shifts from first person to third person feel contrived, particularly the twist at the very end.

Need to Know is a propulsive page-turner, fast, conscientious, and utterly true to its carefully wrought formula. A perfect beach read.

ISBN: 9780593079607
Format: Paperback (234mm x 153mm x mm)
Pages: 400
Imprint: Bantam Press
Publisher: Transworld Publishers Ltd
Publish Date: 25-Jan-2018
Country of Publication: United Kingdom

Review: A Legacy of Spies by John le Carré

Legacy.jpgI opened A Legacy of Spies with a high sense of both anticipation and trepidation. A new book by John le Carré is always cause for celebration — at 85, who’s to say how many more novels we’ll be treated to by the genius writer — but that old saying, You can’t go home again, chimed in my ears when I learned the book was a sequel, of sorts — maybe “coda” is the better word — to The Spy Who Came in from the Cold. Which was exciting to learn, absolutely, but also terrifying. Because even though a bad sequel can’t (ostensibly) detract from the original work, it can taint it; can cast a shadow over your memory. The two are forever linked. Like when you think of Daniel Craig as James Bond, you think, Wow, Casino Royale and Skyfall were awesome, but yikes, remember Quantum of Solace and Spectre? Last thing I wanted was for A Legacy of Spies to tarnish my memory of The Spy Who Came in from the Cold which, alongside Ian Fleming’s From Russia With Love, ranks as one of my all-time favourite spy novels. It doesn’t. And while it’s nowhere near as seminal as its predecessor, both in terms of its scope, plotting and execution, A Legacy of Spies adds depth to that earlier work, which readers mightn’t have needed, but will accept and devour feverishly.

In A Legacy of Spies, Peter Guillam — loyal acolyte of George Smiley — is retired and living in France, when he is abruptly summoned back to London. And when you’ve been out of the game as long as Guillam has, a summons can only signify one thing: trouble. In this instance, that trouble comes in the form of a couple of descendants of Cold War casualties from an operation detailed in The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, who are threatening expensive and public legal action against British intelligence. To justify the events that occurred, Guillam sifts through old paperwork in order to reconstruct proceedings, thereby allowing le Carré to revisit long-dead characters. The plot bounces between the present day — an aged, but dogged Guillam — and the 1960s, when familiar characters were in their pomp.

As is always the case with le Carré’s work, A Legacy of Spies is best read scrupulously. Allow yourself to absorb the details, to savour the delectable prose, and appreciate its nuances. This isn’t a novel that will leave you breathless, but it still satisfies. It is intricate and intelligent, and if this truly marks the end of our time with George Smiley and his cohorts formerly of the Circus, it is a fitting conclusion. My only advice to interested readers: read The Spy Who Came in From the Cold first.

ISBN: 9780241308554
Format: Paperback (234mm x 153mm x mm)
Pages: 272
Imprint: Viking
Publisher: Penguin Books Ltd
Publish Date: 28-Aug-2017
Country of Publication: United Kingdom

Review: Call For the Dead by John le Carré

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Call For the Dead, published in 1961, was both John le Carré’s first novel, and the world’s introduction to the inimitable George Smiley, who returns later this year in A Legacy of Spies. Paced with  le Carré’s trademark assuredness, it’s less an espionage novel and more of a murder mystery, whose main players happen to work for British Intelligence, with a plot that revolves around East German spies inside Great Britain.

Samuel Fennan, a Foreign Office civil servant, apparently commits suicide after a routine security check by Circus agent George Smiley. Certain erroneous details, however, identified by Smiley’s keen eye, bring Fennan’s fate into question. With  Inspector Mendel in tow, Smiley unravels a clandestine spy ring, the members of which will stop at nothing to keep their secrets safe.

Call For the Dead is perhaps John le Carré’s simplest story in terms of scope, but it still manages to highlight the inherent complexities of the life of a spy. Smiley is one of the unlikeliest heroes in espionage fiction, described here as a somewhat short and fat man, but it’s his tenacity and intelligence that shines through, as always. It’s no wonder le Carré decided to continue relaying the man’s adventures to his burgeoning readership. Having said that, the novel hasn’t aged especially well, and modern audiences might struggle with this one. Most readers will accept the now-outdated technology of the time, of course; that’s not the issue. It’s the structure of the book itself — an opening chapter, for example, that is nothing more than a history of George Smiley (it’s actually titled A Brief History of George Smiley!) — that occasionally grinds and clunks. Also, Call For the Dead ends with a summation of the core plot points, penned by Smiley, which is quaint, but something contemporary writers wouldn’t get away with so plainly. Le Carré’s thrillers are now celebrated for their nuance, and in that regard, Call For the Dead definitely has a “first book” vibe.

Nonetheless, re-reading Call For the Dead was a worthy exercise, reminding me of how much more elaborate and nuanced Le Carré’s novels later became. It will be interesting comparing this with A Legacy of Spies, surely the final Smiley thriller, and charting the immeasurable advancements of the world’s greatest writer of espionage fiction.

ISBN: 9780141198286
Format: Paperback
Pages: 160
Imprint: Penguin Classics
Publisher: Penguin Books Ltd
Publish Date: 1-Nov-2011
Country of Publication: United Kingdom

Review: House of Spies by Daniel Silva

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Following on directly from the events in The Black Widow, Daniel Silva’s seventeenth Gabriel Allon thriller, House of Spies, pits the new chief of Israel’s intelligence services against his most formidable opponent yet: the terrorist Saladin, who has just pulled off a spectacular attack on London’s West End.

House of Spies charts the planning and execution of a Gabriel Allon masterminded operation — with the assistance of international intelligence agencies, of course — to locate Saladin, terminate him, and dismantle his vast network of Islamic State terrorists. Silva’s plotting is as deliberate as always; so too his prose, which constitutes a distinguished elegance that separates him from his contemporaries. This is a riveting thriller, which includes the requisite gunfights and explosions genre aficionados demand, but is at its best during its character interactions, when Silva depicts the different styles of global intelligence services, and offers nuanced commentary on geopolitics. This is a genre flooded with novels that rush the build-up; authors desperate to light the fuse and get to the explosion before readers can take a breath. Silva’s expertise is that period between the lighting of the fuse and the explosion; the ratcheting of tension, the heightening of suspense. And nobody else does it with such style and grace, and a great sense of the interpersonal. House of Spies has a gigantic cast, but these people are not faceless merchants of death. They are genuine characters with unique personalities, and reading their interactions is a joy.

Perhaps not the best novel for newcomers to start with, House of Spies serves as another reminder of Daniel Silva’s immense talent. As the world gets scarier and the threats against democracy more vicious, Silva’s thrillers provide much-needed literary escapism, where the good guys don’t always win, but their efforts are stirring, and their adventures delightfully pulse-pounding and unputdownable.

ISBN: 9781460750230
Format: Paperback
Pages: 544
Imprint: HarperCollins Publishers (Australia) Pty Ltd
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers (Australia) Pty Ltd
Publish Date: 24-Jul-2017
Country of Publication: Australia