Joe Country by Mick Herron

John Murray | 2019 (20 June) | 352p | Review copy | Buy the book

Joe Country by Mick HerronWarning!: This review assumes that you’ve read the earlier books in this superb series.

Slough House is full of ghosts and they haunt in an atmosphere of disappointment, bitterness, grief, boredom and slovenliness. It is the place where failed secret agents, the slow horses, are sent to rot and decay. Sometimes they die there, at other times they kill there, both adding blood to the stains on the carpets and walls. It all adds to the malaise of Slough House and its unhappy occupants. One slow horse is new. Alec Wincinski has been dismissed from the secret service headquarters in Regents Park for crimes so heinous that even his colleagues in Slough House will despise him. And he has to share an office with Roddy Ho, an extreme punishment in itself. Wincinski is a bitter man. He knows he is innocent. He will stop at nothing to expose the plot that has ruined him.

Meanwhile, elsewhere in Slough House, Louisa Guy mourns a colleague and the pain intensifies when she learns that his teenage son is missing. According to the colleague’s ex-wife, the least Louisa can do is find him. Louisa knows she’s right. And so begins her secret investigation into whatever trouble it is that has caused the boy to run. It will lead her to snowlocked Pembrokeshire and following her will be other slow horses because, when all is said and done, she is one of their own and they’re not going to let her make a mess of it on her own. They can do a far better job of it together. But before that there must be a funeral. One of the big names in the spy world has died. Secrets will emerge. Everyone will go that funeral to watch who else moves among the gravestones.

As the front of this truly brilliant novel exclaims, Mick Herron is undoubtedly the master of the contemporary spy novel. He has created an extraordinary thing in Slough House. This building that is described so evocatively as if it were almost alive, a corrupt, brooding presence, inhabited by damaged, cast off men and women, has such a power to it. There is nothing like these novels. The secret service world is turned upside down and revealed in all of its power-seeking malignancy. Slough House has a fitting boss – Jackson Lamb, a corpulent, rude, obnoxious and toxic man, who oozes cleverness, slyness, decay and, perhaps, care for his ‘team’. But it’s not just about Slough House. The rot in the Secret Agence comes down from on high, from First Desk Diana Taverner in Regent’s Park, who has the ear of the Prime Minister and has to wrestle with the dirty world of politics. But if they’re dirty, she’s dirtier.

The Slough House operatives are each revealed in their glory as they wrestle with their own demons, whether they’re drink, delusion, grief or guilt. My favourite character, Roddy Ho, is on top form here and is absolutely despicable in his self-belief, bathing in slime. Mick Herron is such a witty writer! I laughed so many times. But then I also cried. There are moments here of such outrage and waste, it’s heartbreaking. Mick Herron writes with power. His sentences always hit the mark. And then there are the moments that simply shock.

There are a world of emotions in Joe Country. There’s also a world of danger and we’re taken into its centre and thrown around in the whirlpool of it all. This series is remarkable. It’s very clever and witty, full of abominable people, and yet Mick Herron makes us care intensely for a fair few of them. It seems as if every human failing can be found in Slough House, the place where disgraced spies are sent to be forgotten, not to mention a fair few tragedies and ghosts, but there’s a warmth to be found in the least likely of places. This book will undoubtedly be among my top books of 2019.

I’m very grateful to David at BlueBookBalloon for his spare copy! You can read David’s review of Joe Country here.

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