Category Archives: spies

The Royal Secret by Andrew Taylor

HarperCollins | 2021 (29 April) | 480p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Royal Secret by Andrew TaylorIt is 1670 and the squalid and decaying court of Charles II is rife with intrigue as the unsteady Stuart crown is threatened by forces in the Netherlands and France. When Abbot, one of the agents working for the Secretary of State Lord Arlington, is found dead, his colleague James Marwood is sent to retrieve confidential papers from his home. It is clear that some are missing, not that this is an easy house to search – it is stinking with rats, poisoned and dying in agony. The trail leads Marwood to the house of Mr Fanshawe where Abbot’s wife and her child, secretive and frightened, now live, alongside the talk of the town, a lion.

Meanwhile, architect Cat Haskins has been hired to design a grand poultry house for the King’s sister in France, a project of great interest to the Dutchman Van Riebeck. Cat finds herself caught in the centre of a disturbing business, one that straddles the English Channel. Marwood can only watch on in alarm before he, too, steps into the fray.

The Royal Secret is the fifth novel to feature James Marwood and the woman who is frequently on his mind, Cat Haskins (once Lovett). You don’t need to have read the others but I would really encourage you to do so as these are among the best historical novels you could possibly read. Their depiction of Charles II’s court during the Great Fire and in the succeeding years is superb. This book does mark a new beginning of sorts because Cat is now independent again. She is working for herself as an architect and is viewed as a curiosity by the people who employ her to design elaborate houses for chickens – it’s all the rage and all rather strange. That’s even before you consider the logistics of owning a pet lion and placing him in your stables.

The plot of The Royal Secret is pleasingly complex and immerses both Marwood and Cat in a situation that endangers them both, while also threatening the security of the realm and a King who is constantly under attack by foreign powers and spies closer to hand. It all gets rather personal when Cat finds herself mixing with the wrong people and all Marwood can do is watch on anxiously. It’s a great story, brilliantly told by Andrew Taylor, and I recommend you dive in. You’ll soon catch up if you haven’t read any of the other books.

It’s the portrayal of Charles II’s court and government that I found the most riveting. It’s a hotbed of personal ambition and envy, sin and disease, corruption and a rather odd idealism surrounding the nature of the crown after years of all too recent civil war and Cromwell’s Commonwealth. Charles does make occasional charismatic appearances in this novel and in the others and they are always highlights. I absolutely love the way in which he is depicted. The men who work for him and conduct his business are far less appealing and Marwood is in the unfortunate position of being caught in the middle of most of them.

There is extra glamour in The Royal Secret thanks to some extremely enjoyable scenes set in France where Cat must wait on the pleasure of Madame, Charles II’s sister. Equally fun to read are the chapters set aboard ships. It’s hard to be refined and noble when in the grip of seasickness. Complementing these personal stories is the intrigue as secret messages move between countries and agents. There’s also a menace at work and he makes for an interesting villain.

The King’s Secret is clever, historically rich and detailed, and extremely engrossing. I can’t rave about it enough as this fabulous series gets even better. It tells a great story – compelling, tragic and thoroughly intriguing and, of course, it is deliciously steeped in the atmosphere of this secretive, diseased, decaying court of Charles II. The King’s Secret is quite possibly the best of the series, which is saying something.

Other reviews
The Ashes of London
The Fire Court

The King’s Evil
The Last Protector

The Consequences of Fear by Jacqueline Winspear

Allison & Busby | 2021 (23 March) | 350p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Consequences of Fear by Jacqueline WinspearThe Consequences of Fear is the 16th novel in Jacqueline Winspear’s much loved and wonderful series featuring Maisie Dobbs, a well-to-do investigator and secret agent in London before and during World War Two. You don’t need to have read all or any of the series to enjoy this latest addition to it (it would even serve as a good introduction) but, if you have, you’ll be as emotionally invested in Maisie as I am and that will add a certain special something to your appreciation of it. I haven’t read them all yet. I’ve read the last few and a couple of the earlier ones and I can thoroughly recommend them and I’m looking forward to catching up with the others. Maisie is definitely a person worth knowing, as is her very dependable and invaluable assistant Billy.

It is October 1941 and bombs continue to fall on London. It is a scarred and pitted city, full of deserted or destroyed buildings. The war effort is everything with many trying to do their bit, while others try and hold things together, still remembering the horrors of the Great War. When young Freddie Hackett, a runner who carries government messages across London, witnesses a murder in a doorway, nobody believes him. But Maisie Dobbs does.

Maisie does everything she can to help Freddie and his family, in tandem with the overstretched police, while continuing in her other job working with a secret government department to train men and women to go undercover in occupied France to work with the Resistance. The burden of this role is almost overpowering for Maisie and is due to become even more so. Maisie is soon to learn that the secrets of the last war remain as dangerous as ever while the current war is reaching a critical stage.

This is a fantastic series and I read The Consequences of Fear as soon as I could. I’m so glad I did as I think this novel could well be my favourite. It feels like a significant book in the series. Maisie’s family life seems to be settling down, causing her to re-evaluate her life and the significance of her friendships. Maisie’s friends play an important role in the novel, as do women in general. She might work for and with men but Maisie is well aware of how special these women are – women who parachute into France to work for the Resistance as radio operators (a role with an average life span of only six weeks), women spies, army drivers, mothers, daughters, friends. I love this circle that surrounds Maisie.

But we can’t forget Billy, Maisie’s assistant, who is completely wonderful. Maisie is, not to put too fine a point on it, posh. She has money to spare and there’s a philanthropic side to her. There’s a formality to her dealings with those who work for her, even if she is very happy to get her hands dirty. Billy can’t really be called a friend but I think Maisie would certainly regard him as family. The two of them together follow their case across London and I love the detail of this – the pubs they visit to question landlords, the deserted houses, the trains, the dark streets, the river. There is a deeply poignant scene near the beginning with the river. This is a city under attack, people are suffering. While it brings out the best in some, it certainly doesn’t in others. Freddie, just a child, bears the weight of this.

I loved spending time with Maisie again. I hoped for the best for her throughout and I worried with her when she felt responsible for the women being sent into France. I enjoy how she mixes with hard-drinking government men and stressed detectives. She straddles male and female wartime experiences. Above all else, Maisie and Billy are immensely likeable, as are Maisie’s friends and family. I can’t wait to see them all again.

Other review
The American Agent

The Rose Code by Kate Quinn

HarperCollins | 2021 (18 March) | 656p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Rose Code by Kate QuinnWhen war is declared in September 1939, glamorous debutante Osla Kendall can’t get back to England from Montreal fast enough to help with the war effort. After a few exhausting weeks building Hurricanes, Osla is headhunted for her language skills and finds herself in Bletchley Park alongside Mab Churt, a working class girl who can type better than anyone. The two of them lodge with Mrs Finch, a ghastly woman whose daughter, the quiet and withdrawn Beth, has an extraordinary gift for solving puzzles. The three of them are soon at home in Bletchley Park, a place where genius and madness co-exist and whose inhabitants will go to astonishing lengths to break life-saving codes. But there is still time for Osla to dance the night away with her beau, Prince Philip of Greece, when he’s home on leave from the navy.

After the war, while she waits for her prince to marry another woman, Osla receives a message from her past. The three friends are no longer close, on the contrary, and one of them is in an asylum. The three must work together once more to fight another threat. The clues to it can be found in their time together at Bletchley Park, a time of secrets, friendships and war.

I knew that I wanted to read The Rose Code the moment I heard about it. I really enjoyed Lady of the Eternal City (which couldn’t be more different!) and so I knew that the story of the women who worked at Bletchley Park, alongside their more famous male counterparts, would be in safe hands. I absolutely loved it!

Our three heroines are drawn from different classes and backgrounds, with Osla hailing from the very heights of society, and yet all three have to face the very real challenges of leading independent, working lives at a time when society viewed such women with suspicion. War changes society and it undoubtedly gave women such as these a new lease of freedom. But it’s at such a cost, as can be seen by our tantalising glimpses of the secretive work going on in these mysterious huts to prevent U-boat attacks and quicken the end to war. But it’s outside those huts that the novel really comes alive as the three women get to know one another and embark on their own adventures – love affairs, marriage, fighting back, friendships with such fascinating and charismatic men. We know from the premise and the sections of the novel that are set a few years later in the days leading up to the marriage of Prince Philip and the Princess Elizabeth that there is darkness and treachery in their future and the reader never loses their desire to find out exactly what happens.

The atmosphere of puzzles and secrecy mixes here with a mood of grabbing what fun one can in a world where everything could be ended by a bomb, or where a loved one can be lost on a ship at sea, a victim of the U-boats that the de-coders are trying to stop. Osla in particular is full of life and I loved spending time with her, especially when she’s with the gallant Prince Philip. We know, of course, that this is a doomed love but it adds such a fun dash of romance to the novel, not to mention a delicious morsel of royal intrigue. The scenes set after the war in the Yorkshire asylum are distressing and disturbing and means that for much of the novel we wonder what on earth could have gone so wrong with these friends.

Kate Quinn writes so well and is wonderful at creating women who feel so real and genuine, even if they are highly unusual. The prose is compelling, the dialogue witty, and the story is fabulous. Bletchley Park isn’t an uncommon setting for a novel these days but it’s certainly viewed from a fresh perspective here – I loved the account of Churchill’s visit! The Rose Code is not a short book but it is a pleasure to read from start to finish.

Other review
Lady of the Eternal City

Savage Road by Chris Hauty

Simon & Schuster | 2021 (21 January) | 400p | Review copy | Buy the book

Savage Road by Chris HautySavage Road is a political thriller that follows hot on the heels of its predecessor, the excellent Deep State. It stands alone perfectly well but it completely spoils the shocks of Deep State. Personally, I’d recommend reading them in order, not least because Deep State is one of the best political thrillers I’ve ever read and made me gasp out loud in shock on the bus more than once! With that warning out of the way, on with the review….

Hayley Chill is now a full-time staffer at the White House, having finished her rather eventful time as an intern. But those with the very, very highest clearance know that Hayley is more than that. She works for the ‘Deep State’, the power that really controls the United States, and her mission is to steer the Russian mole in the White House, now turned double agent, Richard Monroe, the President of the United States. And these are dangerous times. The cold war has gone cyber with attacks escalating between the two countries and the President is being pushed towards war. With the clock ticking, Hayley must discover the origin of the cyber attacks and stop them before it is too late.

Deep State was such a reading highlight of 2020 and I did wonder how on earth Chris Hauty could follow it. The answer is that he does a very good job indeed and that is due in large part to his fantastic creation of Hayley Chill and the situation which has placed a traitor in the Oval Office. I love Hayley. She is a diamond with rough edges, largely underestimated and misunderstood as a redneck, a former soldier and boxer, fiercely loyal and courageous, stubborn and relentless, incorruptible. Hayley Chill is brilliant. And she contrasts in every way with Richard Monroe. The relationship between these two is unlike any other I’ve read in a political thriller. The tension is incredible.

There are shocks in Savage Road that challenge those in Deep State. It’s staggering how Chris Hauty can do this time after time! You never know what will happen in these novels. The plotting in Savage Road is second to none.

I can say no more as you need to discover what’s going on here for yourself but it seems like such a good time to read a political thriller. I read it during the last days of the Trump administration. No longer do I think that the events described by Chis Hauty are impossible, while nothing about the activity of spies would surprise me. And yet these books do just that! And, just as with Deep State, Savage Road has left me wanting more.

Other review
Deep State

Slough House by Mick Herron

John Murray | 2021 (4 February) | 320p | review copy | Buy the book

Slough House by Mick HerronWe have reached the seventh novel in this truly brilliant series by the genius that is Mick Herron. If you haven’t read the others (and I can definitely recommend the audiobooks read by Sean Barrett if you want to catch up), then Slough House does stand up very well on its own but much of its impact does come from having met before these extraordinary inhabitants of Slough House. Known as the Slow Horses, these men and women have been cut adrift from M15 for the worst of reasons and Slough House is where they go to fester, under the disturbing control (or manipulation) of Jackson Lamb, a man you wouldn’t want to meet down a dark alley even if he were able to squeeze down it.

Relations between the secret service agencies of Britain and Russia are hotting up – or should that be colding down? – and Jackson Lamb and his ‘team’ of spy rejects are caught in the middle. But, should ‘Princess’ Diana Taverner, now M of M15, assume that they are a spent force then she couldn’t be more wrong. They still have tricks up their sleeves. The Slow Horses are under attack again, with their number in severe risk of reducing further but, incredibly, one former colleague appears to be back from the dead, albeit probably temporarily. It’s time to fight back.

The Slough House series of books are must reads if you have any interest at all in contemporary spy novels and, incredible as it is to say as they are all excellent, this latest novel is in my opinion the best of the series. One reason for this is that the characters and the building of Slough House itself are now well established. I love how the novels begin with a tour of the House by our omnipresent narrator. These sections always remind me of Bleak House and set the stage every bit as well. These novels reek with the corrupt atmosphere of Slough House – the cigarette smoke, the mess, the flatulence of Jackson Lamb, the booze, misery, guilt, dejection and failure. All is contrasted with the refined and clean rooms of the M15 headquarters in Regents Park. But in Slough House we become more aware than ever that rot can be found in that location as well – corruption, vice and the old boy’s network. This is a world where an Etonian Prime Minister is trying to hold everything together and in which ‘Yellow Vests’ march on the streets, ugly and extreme.

Despite all of the problems and power struggles at home, there is a war on between the spies of the UK and Russia, triggered by the novichok poisoning that has left a British citizen dead. This is a fascinating starting point for the novel and the plot is involved, complex and gripping throughout.

We meet old ‘friends’ in Slough House, each of whom is dealing with their own problems, addictions, mistakes and griefs. Roddy Ho is as abhorrent (and hysterical) as ever but we spend much of the time with River, a man whose very blood is steeped in the secret service. We are involved with these people. Even Jackson Lamb excels himself (his potential for violence has never been more coldly shocking). But we retain an emotional investment in them. That’s the extraordinary thing.

Mick Herron is a brilliant spy writer. He has created an incredible cast of men and women, both the rejects and the powerful. His portrayal of Diana Taverner is particularly well developed in Slough House and I enjoyed her appearances – especially the scenes between Diana and Lamb. The books are witty and chillingly cool and atmospheric, as the reader strives to reach out to characters in very real distress. And danger. A great deal of danger. As always, I was left wanting more. These novels are essential reading.

Other reviews
London Rules
Joe Country

A Prince and A Spy by Rory Clements

Zaffre | 2021 (21 January) | 480p | Review copy | Buy the book

A Prince and A Spy by Rory ClementsIt is 1942 and a secret meeting takes place in Sweden. Prince George, the Duke of Kent, and brother to George VI, meets his cousin Prince Philipp von Hesse, a committed member of the Nazi Party and friend to Adolf Hitler. Ostensibly, they are there to discuss peace between their nations but there may well have been another reason, not least because the Duke should have been in Iceland, not Sweden. Discovering what that reason was becomes a matter of urgency to the secret service agencies of the UK, Germany and America when the plane carrying the Duke back to Scotland crashes for no good reason and all but one of the crew and passengers aboard are killed, including the Duke.

Professor Tom Wilde, an American don at Cambridge University and now also working for American secret operations in the UK, is despatched to Scotland to investigate, in particular to trace the mysterious woman believed to have survived the crash. It is only when he finds her that Tom discovers the tangled web of secrets and crimes that surround the Swedish meeting and the crash. His mission becomes urgent, not least because of who is on his tail.

Rory Clements is a master of historical spy thrillers, whether set in Elizabethan England (interestingly Tom Wild’s subject) or in the 1930s and 1940s. I am a huge fan of the Tom Wilde novels and they have been the reading highlight of January over the last five years. I was so excited to read A Prince and A Spy and I couldn’t read it fast enough – it is a fine spy thriller and a great addition to one of my favourite series. It is the fifth but it does stand alone well as each of the novels does. However, I think that you’d appreciate it more fully if you’ve read the others, which follow Tom and his partner Lydia through the pre-War years up to the outbreak of War and beyond, including their harrowing missions to Germany (I can never do justice to just how tense these books can be). Now we’ve reached the stage of the war at which Hitler and his men might be beginning to consider that the War is not entirely going their way and so the author covers another critical period of the War and the Duke of York’s crash is the perfect catalyst.

There is a sense in A Prince and A Spy that Tom Wilde may be in over his head as he realises that the truth he is chasing is critical to all countries with a vested interest in winning the War. Nobody can be trusted, even old allies. There are many welcome familiar faces in the novel but Tom is more of an outsider than ever. There are new people he must meet and rely upon, all of whom will be in as much danger as him. This is a different kind of mission for Tom. This time he must hide. He’s on the run. There’s a constant sense that he is always being watched, that he can never quite escape. Lydia, kept at home with their young son, feels increasingly isolated. This adds to the tension. Tom is almost on his own. Almost, but not quite.

There are some disturbing and harrowing scenes in A Prince and A Spy. They’re dealt with sensitively but they do linger in the mind, as they should, I think. Rory Clements is a fine historian. He has a fascinating grasp of the politics and intrigue of the time, which he conveys so well, but he’s also really good at the details. The novel is immersed in the early 1940s. It feels right. I find it amazing that the author is just as knowledgeable and insightful with the 1930s and 1940s as he is with the 1580s. I also really like the way that he finds parallels between the two periods, and their spy masters. This is clever stuff.

Tom Wilde is a fantastic character and I love that he’s a history professor. He understands the lessons of history and he knows the significance of his present day. There are some intriguing scenes when he comes up against politicians who seem to have a different perspective, tackling immediate crises rather than looking ahead to the long term. But, apart from all that, I really like Tom Wilde as a human being. He’s not a young man. He’s had a difficult past, which, one senses, he’s now been able to put behind him, and he’s strongly motivated by a need to do the right thing as well as protect those who need it. He’s also ruthless when he needs to be. Tom is a successful spy and agent for good reason. People are drawn to Tom Wilde. He’s likeable and earnest. His relationship with Lydia has altered him (Tom is different now from how he was at the beginning of the series). My only regret with A Prince and A Spy is that Lydia doesn’t play more of a part – she’s now the complaining housewife and mother when, in the past, she’s played such an active and positive role. I hope for better things for her in the future!

I thoroughly enjoyed A Prince and A Spy, reading it in just a couple of days, which is good for me in these Lockdown times. It’s engrossing and completely immersive. I’ve grown so fond of Tom over the last few years. It was good to spend time with him again – and in such a good story! The plot is excellent and I was hooked. The Duke’s death in an air crash is a true story and the prefect starting point for Rory Clements’ tale of spies and intrigue at this crucial stage of World War Two. The Nazis have Professor Tom Wilde in their sights now more than ever. I can’t wait for more.

Other reviews
Holy Spy
Corpus
Nucleus

Nemesis
Hitler’s Secret

Double Agent by Tom Bradby

Bantam Press | 2020 (28 May) | 368p | Review copy | Buy the book

Double Agent by Tom BradbyDouble Agent, the new thriller by well-known ITV news reporter Tom Bradby, follows directly on from Secret Service, which was published last year. Although Double Agent can be read as a stand alone, it does reveal everything that happened in the previous novel and also, I think, its impact would be much greater if you knew what had happened. So please do read Secret Service first. It is excellent. This review assumes you’ve done just that so do please step away if you don’t want to know anything about what has gone on.

Kate Henderson is a senior officer at M16 and the whole agency is in turmoil following recent events. Kate has been personally affected more than most and her home life is now as fragile as her career. She knows that she is barely hanging on. She can only sleep with the help of medication. She’s worried about her children and is grieving the loss of people close to her. Her therapist advises her to have a complete break from work. But she can’t. Nothing that happened before has gone away. It looks as if there may still be a Russian mole in the secret service. The same Russian spies are in touch again and this time they have more evidence to support the outrageous claims that a very senior British politician is a Russian spy. In return, the Russian spies wish to defect to the UK. But is it all true? Kate feels under attack, that she’s being watched, suspected. She has to discover the truth so that she can sleep at night. Her close friends at M16 support her but can they really be trusted? Can anyone be trusted, especially now when nothing feels safe?

Secret Service is such a fantastic thriller and I’m pleased to say that so, too, is Double Agent. It is different, though. This time Kate must deal with the dramatic fallout of previous events on the secret service, the government and on her own life, which has been transformed as a result. The focus is now fully on Kate Henderson, a woman of integrity and feeling, who has reached the end of her tether while still having to go that extra mile to discover a truth that may not be even knowable. She is driven while at the same time she is close to exhaustion. It’s an extremely powerful portrait by Tom Bradby. Kate is a fascinating character, fully three-dimensional, and she is also likeable.

We experience this shifty and shifting state of affairs through Kate’s perspective and that means that the people around her remain shady, untrustworthy and potentially sinister. There is also a new figure for Kate to deal with – Suzy from M15 who has been assigned to Kate as her Deputy but her motives are entirely unknown and Suzy herself is a complete enigma and a woman of many contradictions. That makes her very interesting to read about.

In the midst of this tense tale of spies and murder, there is the human tale of Kate and her family. I don’t want to go into that here because you really do need to know what happened in the first book, but I love the way that this is done, especially the portrayal of Kate’s fragile daughter.

There were a couple of moments in this book that made me shout out with shock. I actually did that. It’s not often a book catches me out. Double Agent does.

If you enjoy spy thrillers half as much as I do then you’ll really like these books and the characters within them. I love the fact that they deal with the old enemy – the Russians. We’re reminded of that Cold War past as Kate travels by train across Russia. I love all that – the atmosphere, the mood, the tension. Double Agent is an excellent spy thriller which complements Secret Service perfectly.

Other review
Secret Service

Hitler’s Secret by Rory Clements

Zaffre | 2020 (23 January) | 432p | Review copy | Buy the book

Hitler's Secret by Rory ClementsHitler’s Secret is the fourth novel in Rory Clements’ Tom Wilde historical spy thriller series. I think that this novel stands alone perhaps better than the others but I would still suggest that you read the others first. It’s certainly worth it as this is one of my most favourite series of recent years. This review assumes you’ve had the pleasure.

It is Autumn 1941 and the war is not going well for the allies. The position of America is critical as it wavers between war and no war, with those sympathetic to fascism in powerful posts. Britain must use all means at its disposal to influence the outcome and that means spies and subterfuge. Tom Wilde, an American in England, a Professor of Elizabethan history at Cambridge University, is a man that Britain’s secret service regularly calls on and he is perfect for their latest mission. They want to send him into Berlin as an American-German industrialist with Nazi sympathies and there he must obtain a ‘package’ that must be smuggled out of Germany at all cost. There are powerful men who will do everything in their power to stop it leaving Germany and Wilde must overcome them. It’s obviously a deadly mission and life has moved on for Wilde. He’s now living with Lydia and they have a child. But he is driven to do it.

Germany is every bit as challenging as he would expect and there he meets people both charismatic and dangerous, including Anton Offerbach, Sunny Somerfeld, the widow of a German hero, Martin Boorman, Hitler’s henchman, and many others. Wilde can trust none of them although he’ll need the help of some to discover the package. And when he does everything changes. There may well be no way back for Tom Wilde.

Hitler’s Secret was a very pleasant surprise to me, to put it mildly. I had falsely assumed that this was a trilogy and that last year’s Nemesis was the third and final novel. How glad I am I was wrong. Time has moved on for Professor Wilde but, now that England is in real danger of losing a war that Tom Wilde has worked so hard to try and prevent, his services are required once more. The result is another beautifully written, extremely well-plotted spy thriller, which is tense from start to finish but is also a genuine puzzler that makes you think. Everyone in it has their own agenda, their own secrets, their own limits – how far will each go to achieve their target? This shifts constantly. People are complicated in this novel as they are in real life. It can be impossible to predict how they’ll behave when faced with certain circumstances. And this is every bit as true for Wilde as it is for other characters in the novel.

The sense of danger is palpable as Tom Wilde finds himself in disguise in the lion’s den, in Berlin itself, having meetings with some of the most important figures in Hitler’s Reich. The tension is almost overpowering, as is Tom Wild’s bravery. But Wilde is also a very clever man. Unfortunately, he is up against some of the most ruthless and determined people in Nazi Germany and it’s not long before they all want him dead and a trail of blood is left across the land. It’s compelling and riveting.

But the novel also has a great deal of heart as Wilde must reflect on what’s important to him morally and he must make decisions accordingly. Although Hitler’s Secret is the most linear and possibly the most straightforward of the four novels, it is extremely well-written, as we’d expect from master storyteller Rory Clements, and very clever, with its dark and dangerous world brilliantly depicted. Tom Wilde is an exceptional character, bridging both American and British worlds, an outsider, someone who can make himself fit almost anywhere because of his deep insight into human behaviour and his expert knowledge of the lessons that history can teach us. I adore this series, it’s always one of the reading highlights of the year and, now that I know that this is not a trilogy, I really hope there’ll be more.

Other reviews
Holy Spy
Corpus
Nucleus
Nemesis

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.

Other review
London Rules

Secret Service by Tom Bradby

Bantam Press | 2019 (30 May) | 368p | Review copy | Buy the book

Secret Service by Tom BradbyKate Henderson has a lot on her plate. She’s got a full family life with two teenage children and a mother stricken by dementia, who also happens to be an extremely unpleasant woman. And then there’s the busy job, which involves a great deal of travel, often at short notice. For Kate is a senior officer in Britain’s Secret Service, M16, with responsibility for the Russia desk. A tip off has sent her and her small team to Turkey where it is believed that some of the most important members of Russia’s own secret service are gathering on a yacht. Kate has recruited someone to plant a bug on that yacht and what they overhear throws the UK and Russia back into the freeze of a cold war. They hear that the British Prime Minister is about to resign through ill health and that one of the candidates in his Cabinet is a Russian agent. As if this isn’t bad enough, this also tells Kate that there is a mole in M16. But who is it?

I love spy thrillers and I really liked the sound of this one. Tom Bradby is a journalist and author who now presents the ITV News at Ten. He definitely knows his stuff but, just as important as that, he really knows how to tell a good story. Secret Service is a brilliantly clever and thrilling read from start to finish. For some reason, perhaps because I’ve visited and like the country very much indeed, I particularly enjoy spy thrillers with a Russian element. They might be traditional but Tom Bradby shows here that this long-held friction still continues – and suspicions that Russia’s secret service has meddled in elections are extremely topical. And then there’s the matter of a British Prime Minister resigning, resulting in a leadership battle… that sounds rather familiar. Secret Service is undoubtedly a topical and timely thriller.

Kate Henderson is very much at the centre of the novel. She’s not presented as some cold, calculating spy master. Kate is a fully rounded human being, a woman who has to juggle family and work, with all of the guilt and demands that this entails. We spend time with Kate’s family as she has to deal with troublesome kids, a really nasty mother, and a husband who is accommodating and caring but has a pressing job of his own. Kate’s job involves a lot of soul searching as well as sacrifice. She has to decide how far she is prepared to go to protect her country, to do her job. How much will she risk? Who is she prepared to endanger? And how will she live with the consequences? The novel is full of personal stories and Kate is responsible for the lives of many of these people. It’s an engrossing and involving novel.

In a spy thriller you want puzzles, action and (as you’d expect) thrills. Secret Service provides all of these. On top of this there’s politics and the ambition of senior politicians, not to mention the ambition of Kate’s immediate superiors at M16. There is intense rivalry across the board and Kate is caught somewhere in the middle. Secret Service is intricately plotted, tense and full of menace, and at its centre is a very appealing, likeable character who has to make the most difficult of decisions, each of which has consequences. If I had a recipe of what I would put into a spy thriller, Secret Service has the lot.