Review: The Catch by Mick Herron

 9781529331677The Catch: A Slough House Novella | Mick Herron | John Murray | 14 January 2020 | RRP $22.99 | 9781529331677

As I (impatiently) await the release of a new Slough House novel, this snack-size interlude serves as a wonderful reminder of just how brilliant Mick Herron’s series of espionage novels are; not reliant on Hollywood pyrotechnics or gunplay, but compelling because of the interplay between distinguishable characters, and their clever plotting. The Catch is one of those rare novellas that deepens and enriches the lore of its creators world.

Intelligence Service operative John Bachelor — although it’s a stretch to call him ‘operational’ — is living rent-free in a dead spook’s apartment. Poor John, a ‘Milkman’ for the service, is down on his luck; and the arrival of two Regent’s Park heavies early one morning hardly signals a change in his fortune. They’re looking for a man named Benny Manors, who Bachelor was being paid for by the service to monitor, but whose lackadaisical tendencies have allowed Manors to vanish. If Bachelor doesn’t find Manors — and quickly — he faces not only the end of his living arrangements, but quite possibly the end of his life. Little does he realise he is merely a pawn in a game being played by powerful figures attempting to control a scandal involving a member of the Royal family and a paedophile.

Another well-crafted entry in Herron’s fiendishly good Slough House series. Don’t let its slight page count fool you; The Catch provides twists aplenty.

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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: 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

Review: Defectors by Joseph Kanon

DefectorsJoseph Kanon’s Defectors moves deliberately but colourfully, with intelligent prose and a strong Cold War period feel. With his recent literary gems (Leaving Berlin, Istanbul Passage), the heir apparent to John Le Carré is doing a wonderful job re-sparking interest in classic spy fiction. Nobody is doing it better. Frankly, nobody can do it better.

In 1949, CIA agent Frank Weeks was exposed as a Communist spy and defected to the Soviet Union. Twelve years later, in 1961 when the Defectors opens, his brother, Simon, a New York-based book publisher, gets drawn into a dangerous scheme when Frank dangles the proposition of a tell-all memoir. Simon travels to Moscow, anxious about reuniting with his brother, whose treachery resulted in his dismissal from his work as an analyst (a position he had held with the OSS during World War II), not to mention discomfort over the his secret affair with Frank’s wife, Jo.

But more than that, Simon’s concern is based on uncertainty over Frank’s intentions. The man has made self-preservation an art form, and there is no way his KGB masters will agree to an unadulterated exposé — so what is the true purpose behind Simon’s visit? And will Simon agree to whatever scheme Frank has set in motion? Whatever he decides, there will be a cost.

Like Alan Furst’s The Foreign Correspondent and Le Carré’s The English Spy, Kanon’s latest perfectly encapsulates the potency of a spy thriller devoid of explosions and shootouts. This is a thriller that eschews video game shoot-’em-up style action, and instead relies on the the complexities of its characters and their confused loyalties to maximise suspense. Defectors is a virtuoso display by an author at his peak. It’s a masterful thriller, pure and simple.

ISBN: 9781471162626
Format: Paperback (234mm x 153mm x mm)
Pages: 400
Imprint: Simon & Schuster Ltd
Publisher: Simon & Schuster Ltd
Publish Date: 1-Jun-2017
Country of Publication: United Kingdom

Review: Dead Lions by Mick Herron

dead-lionsSlough House — a disregarded echelon of MI5 — is comprised of disgraced and incompetent agents, who are assigned an endless supply of demeaning and feckless tasks in an effort to wear them down until the pull the pin on their careers. Ruled by the legendary Jackson Lamb — possibly the most abominable protagonist to have ever been spotlighted in espionage fiction —  the inhabitants of Slough House are skilled operators, whose vices and mistakes have demolished whatever usefulness they might have to the service. But when a former agent, Dickie Bow, is found dead on a London bus, Lamb and his subordinates take it upon themselves to investigate. Bow’s final text message — “cicadas” — has ominous repercussions:  it signifies the awakening of a sleeper cell of foreign agents, which dates back to the Cold War. Suddenly, Lamb’s Slow Horses are in a race against against time to determine their enemy’s target, and stop it from taking place.

Slow Horses was a remarkable spy novel, and this second in the series, Dead Lions, is a fine sequel. With the pieces already set up on the board, Mick Herron wastes no time in thrusting readers into a whirlwind, multi-stranded plot, which is orchestrated with Bach-like precision. Herron’s stories have the same complexity as Le Carre’s, but are written with the economy of Richard Stark, and this combination makes for an incredibly page-turning read. There is a large cast of characters involved, but each are fleshed out, and boast distinctive personalities; a rarity in this genre, when one could easily swap out James Bond for Jason Bourne, or Sean Dillon, or Jack Ryan, and not really notice any discernible difference.

Mick Herron has breathed new lie into the landscape of the espionage novel. I haven’t breezed through a series of books this quickly in a long, long time. As I write this, I’ve started the third novel, Real Tigers, and may well dig into Herron’s other novels while I wait for Spook Street in February.

ISBN: 9781473641112
Format: Paperback
(197mm x 129mm x 23mm)
Pages: 352
Imprint: John Murray Publishers Ltd
Publisher: John Murray General Publishing Division
Publish Date: 8-Sep-2016
Country of Publication: United Kingdom