This is the fifth in Mick Herron’s Jackson Lamb series, which in characterisation and tone is essentially a rollicking subversion of John le Carré’s books about George Smiley. Whereas Smiley is the humane genius of the British secret service, his worst vice being reading German poetry in the original, Herron’s main spy is Lamb, a bigoted, philistine, morbidly obese, spectacularly flatulent, alcoholic chain-smoker whose newest grossness, introduced in this instalment, is spitting back into the office’s communal Haribo packet the flavours he finds unappetising.
Lamb is himself found distasteful by MI5 high command; after a previously vague disgrace, which is finally detailed in this book, he was sent as punishment to run Slough House, an MI5 naughty step for those who have suffered personal or professional reverses of fortune.
These assorted career-stalled operatives include Shirley Dander, who starts the new book 62 days clean of cocaine, and Catherine Standish, who is struggling to stay off the bottle. River Cartwright joined MI5 because all the men in his family did, but screwed up so badly that he neutralised the nepotism, and Roderick Ho is an IT geek whose precise character defect has so far been sketchy in the series, but becomes the crux of London Rules.
While Smiley’s crises arose from Soviet-run eastern Europe, Lamb’s emanate from post-Soviet Russia and the Middle East, especially the jihadists of Islamic State, although the eventual solution of London Rules cleverly involves a fresher modern enemy of the west, previously relatively neglected in fiction.
The new book is also set specifically after the EU referendum. Its antagonist, Dennis Gimball, is the UK’s leading Eurosceptic MP, with a wife who writes a tabloid column. As in earlier books, which featured a floppy-fringed bicycling Westminster populist, Herron adeptly negotiates the rules of satire and the laws of libel to create fictional public figures who simultaneously hit more than one real-life bullseye. During a series of terrorist attacks on Britain, Slough House detects a threat to Gimball, making the reader wonder whether the espionage rejects are capable of saving the politician and, frankly, whether we want them to.
Stylistically, Herron’s narrative voice swoops from the high – times of day are given personified sections describing the movement through London of Dawn, Noon, Dusk, Night – to the low, such as a gag about Lamb’s flatulence being “paradoxically bottomless”. But it’s the dialogue that zings: the screenwriters of the inevitable TV version won’t have to change much. Lamb compares ethical behaviour to “a vajazzle on a nun. Pretty to picture, but who really benefits?” Herron’s ear falters only in the oddity that characters of all ages and backgrounds relentlessly say “going to” as “gunna”, which grates on the page.
The dominant tactic, though, is the juxtaposition of big jokes and high jeopardy. Many tragicomedies alternate strands of each strain, but Herron more boldly attempts to wear the contrasting Greek masks at the same time, constructing, in London Rules, a farce around terrorist atrocities and assassinations. Although this approach would prove intolerable for anyone directly affected by terrorism, its success can be judged by the fact that I laughed out loud at the ingeniously ridiculous way in which one villain is finished off. This scene, in also seeming to contain a deliberate echo of Graham Greene’s story “A Shocking Accident”, is part of Herron’s web of affectionate references to predecessors in the espionage genre.
Herron is a very funny writer, but also a serious plotter: London Rules smartly turns on the realisation by foreign enemies of how a piece of colonial knowhow, discovered by Britain during its imperial pomp, can be turned against the 21st-century nation.
Readers may sometimes feel queasy that the creation of Lamb, a man who says the unsayable, gives Herron easy licence to write the unwritable on subjects such as race and disability, in the way that character comedy can allow performers to pass off bigotry as irony. For me, though, these grotesque creations have the subtler purpose of challenging a society that increasingly applies sensitivity and offensiveness tests to public discourse. Where Herron’s novels most overlap with those of Le Carré is in the severity of their critique of the failures of management in post-imperial, pre–Brexit Britain.
The most savage gag in the Slough House books, made ever more explicit in London Rules, is that while Lamb’s gang may be variously incompetent and psychopathic, they are the last best hope of the nation in comparison with the outwardly more reliable types at the top of politics and the security services. Will those who are best at watching their mouths always be best at watching our backs?