Herron is a fine, often glorious sentence-by-sentence writer, and fiercely funny with his dialogue. He plots very well too. Joe Country sees River Cartwright’s dangerous biological father, Frank, back in play, while the teenage son of the late Marcus Longridge has gone missing. Upshot: our heroes spend the last two-thirds of the novel on a violent away day in a snow-shrouded corner of Wales dodging a kill-squad. There’s more action and a bit less of the labyrinthine spook politics in this book than we’ve come to expect – and to my mind it suffers very slightly for it – but it’s still a hugely satisfying addition to the series. And in its dramatic cliffhanger payoff, it seems to promise a portentous new direction. Personally, I can’t wait.
The plot is never the point of Herron’s acute examinations of human behaviour and society. Well observed, angry and deeply sad, Joe Country is fundamentally about injustice. Most of the slow horses are being punished for failures that are not their own; they are toys in other people’s games. The latest recruit is Lech Wicinski, removed from The Park (the headquarters of MI5) when child pornography is found on his computer. Lamb sets out to find out who framed him and how. Being Lamb, he doesn’t offer Wicinski the comfort of knowing this and indeed torments him with endless quips about his supposed transgression.
Mick Herron is fast becoming the go-to author for British espionage, and the sixth novel in his Slough House series, Joe Country, is up to his usual high standard. Slough House, fiefdom of the fabulously repulsive Jackson Lamb, is the naughty step for failed MI5 operatives, its “slow horse” inhabitants doomed to spend the remainder of their careers grinding through repetitive tasks. However, when Louisa Guy goes off piste because of a request by the ex-wife of her lover, now-deceased slow horse Min Harper, the team wind up floundering around a snow-bound Wales. There they become embroiled in a plot involving misbehaviour in very high places, blackmail and treachery. Aficionados can expect Herron’s trademark snappy dialogue, memorably flawed characters and sharp political observation; newcomers are advised to start at the beginning of the series.