Slow Horses—Mick Herron

[As usual, I decided to read this novel in sections, writing about each before reading the next. There are four sections altogether.]

23 March 2018
Chapters 1-6 (of 19)
I’m enjoying this. A review quoted on the cover mentions Graham Greene, and I can see why. Slough House—which is not even the real name of the office haunted by spooks who have made a big enough mistake for the bosses to be publicly embarrassed—is the essence of seediness. And in the secret service, presented as the most hierarchical organisation imaginable, even the boss of this place seems to be a loser. He inhabits the top floor of the building, which is a metaphor in itself, three storeys of dingy offices above a shop on a London street. Herron shows it to us from the London bus held up in traffic outside, has a passenger imagining that maybe it isn’t the solicitor’s premises advertised on the first-floor window but the place where washed-up agents are found the most trivial jobs to do, keeping them busy on tedious tasks for the rest of their careers. Well, we’ll see.

Herron likes games like this, and all sorts of other games. He lets us think that he’s on our side by telling us the outcome of Chapter 1, which is a kind of prologue, in the first sentence—about ‘how River Cartwright slipped off the fast track and joined the slow horses.’ But after that he wrong-foots us so many times I’ve lost count. Sometimes it’s to do with names, like the ‘Lady Di’ who River tails in a training exercise—this is early on so we briefly wonder what decade we’re in—and ‘Sid’ who shares his so-called office. Lady Di, we learn much later, is Diana Taverner, the boss of their whole section of the Service—so the ‘Taverner’ we’ve heard about and assumed to be male is actually a woman…. And we’ve made a similar mistake already, by assuming the same thing about Sid, who turns out to be Sidonie.

These are jokey warning shots from a narrator who doesn’t want us to take anything for granted. Less flippant is the later information we get that the appalling terrorist incident that River failed to prevent at Kings Cross, causing over a hundred deaths and a costing millions of pounds’ worth of damage (to say nothing of the billions in lost tourist revenue) was no such thing. In fact, it had been no more than an exercise to assess his capabilities. His error was to do with—guess—the slipperiness of language. His then colleague, who now works comfortably in the Service’s HQ, had told him that the suspect terrorist would be wearing ‘a white tee under a blue shirt.’ Except, apparently, he didn’t say this, because River had got the colours mixed up. It’s such an elementary mistake it seems unbelievable—and River himself never believes it. So why, he wonders, did ‘Spider’ Webb—nicknames are never subtle in this world—give him deliberately wrong information? And was it a coincidence that there was an innocent but suspicious-looking student wearing exactly the clothing River was (wrongly) looking out for, in exactly the right place at the right time?

River has been living with these suspicions for eight months now, but they are only now beginning to be made clear to the reader. He has had to deliver a package to Webb, containing a memory stick that is apparently becoming a big part of some plot or other, and it’s during his brief meeting that his ex-colleague, like nearly everybody else, is happy to bring up the alleged error. Rivers wants to punch him—or, failing that, to find out from him why on earth he wanted to ruin his career. He does neither, but…

…but, unless there’s a different plot going on—there might be—he has something that nobody knows about. He had been sent with the memory stick in a self-combusting ‘flash-box’ which he had opened on his way across London, and delivers it instead in a jiffy-bag. Webb expresses a little surprise at the apparent lack of any security measures, but River seems able to persuade him to put it down to a typical lack both of resources and initiative at Slough House. Which leaves River, having burnt his hand in opening the box, with an illicit copy of the stick burning a hole in his pocket. He doesn’t attempt to read it straight away because the plot, already convoluted, takes some further turns. But first I’d better tell you how anybody at Slough House could possibly have something that Regent’s Park might be interested in. Time to rewind.

Our introduction to River’s life at Slough House is unpromising. He had been sent to keep watch at a journalist’s home on the night before the bins were due to be emptied, to make sure he would be able to find anything useful that the man might have thrown away. As he sifts through the rubbish next day, he suspects it had been a fool’s errand, concocted by Jackson Lamb, the boss, to remind him how meaningless his life has become. He’s finding nothing and, when Lamb comes to survey his work, River manages to spill a lot of the bin’s smelly contents all over both sides of the office…. He never does find anything, but in a change of scene we’re with the journalist, now a washed-up loser gone to seed, at his usual routine in a local café. He’s trawling the quality papers for anything interesting, hoping to find a hint of something that he—and only he—is expecting to happen. It sounds like the dream of a burnt-out case, but something else takes our mind off that. And his. An attractive woman, having drawn his attention, manages to spill her coffee on herself, causing him to leave his place and fuss over her instead. End of scene…

…and it’s only later, with River in the boss’s office, that we find out that the woman was Sid, and that during the clean-up of the mess she had managed to get hold of the memory stick hanging from his key-ring and conveniently left with the rest of the contents of his pockets on his table. She’d been tailing him for some days, so she’d known his little habits—and when things have settled down at the café she can copy the contents of the stick on to the laptop he saw her working at before, then wait for some other distraction to swap it with the dummy stick she’d substituted for it on the key-ring. Jackson Lamb seems as mystified as everybody else about why Spider Webb might want the notes of a has-been journalist without sending one of Regent’s Park’s more trustworthy agents—we’re party to a phone conversation he has with Webb, and take note of how Lamb considers it a favour he’ll be able to call in at some future time.

And other things have been going on. In a scene that had seemed unconnected at first, we have followed the events of an evening in Leeds. A young man, not yet twenty, is set upon by three other young men, and taken off somewhere. The victim, whose name we don’t know, hopes it’s a student prank but knows it isn’t. When he finds himself stripped to his underpants in a room containing nothing but a bed and a slop-bucket he fears the worst. He has to believe he’s going to be there for some time, and after his captors have abused him for a while they leave the room. Then the light goes out. Ok.

The day after River’s visit to his former base he arrives at work with the contents of the stick still unknown to him, to find that Slough House’s tech expert Ho is running a live-streaming video of—guess. A young man—it has to be the same one, we think, and we’re right—is shown, now in an orange prison jumpsuit, his head covered, gloves on his hands, and holding a copy of that morning’s newspaper. And that’s all. Soon it’s all over the media, and everybody, including the reader, assumes this to be a white hostage held by Islamist terrorists. But the chapter I’ve just finished reading ends with new information telling us that everybody has got it wrong. The final two lines reveal Mick Herron’s neatest bit of wrong-footing so far. The supposed terrorists are shouting at their hostage, ending with ‘You fucking Paki.’ And, in a paragraph of its own: ‘Hassan wept.’

Anything else? I’ve mentioned the slipperiness of language—a part of the fabric of this world, in which nothing can be taken at face-value. I’ve mentioned the games, like the assumptions we make about those names, and the nicknames for people and places. Regent’s Park is the upmarket-sounding hub of the Service, the place the slow horses (Slough House/slow horses, another lame joke) feel exiled from in unfashionable Finsbury. Different types of agent are Dogs, Achievers… etc. It’s all part of the hierarchical mindset. Roderick Ho’s name might not tell us anything about him, but his wrong guess about what his nickname would be tells us a lot. He thought it would be ‘Clint,’ by way of what he considers very obvious steps: Ho – Westward Ho – Eastward Ho – Clint Eastwood. He’s wrong, obviously. This ends up showing us not only that he doesn’t think like everybody else, but that it makes him despise them. Maybe he’s on the autism spectrum… or maybe that’s just what Herron wants us to suspect. Whatever, this comes in a short section focused on him—and all the other denizens have been given similar moments in the narrative sun. All except one, Jackson Lamb…

…and readers like me, new to Herron, notice that three of his other novels are called the ‘Jackson Lamb thrillers’ in a list at the front this one. So is Jackson Lamb going to be a much more important character than we’ve been led to believe—none of the chapters or sections of chapters is written from his point of view—or does this one show his life after some career-changing failure, described in an earlier novel? I could find out on Wikipedia, but I won’t do that just now. And if Lamb is really the important one, why is it River we follow on a visit to the grandfather who helped to bring him up? He, we realise, is the ‘OB’ that River often thinks of in connection with his own work, and we’d assumed him to be a boss of some kind. But no, he’s the man that River’s useless mother called the Old Bastard, interested in what River does—he really had been high up in the Service once—but long retired now. Herron likes to keep us guessing.

27 March
Chapters 7-9—to the end of Part 1
He certainly does. Mick Herron. Like to keep us guessing. I’ve just made an unscheduled stop at this point, because I’ve stumbled on to the end of Part 1. I’d planned to read another three chapters before writing, but the confirmation that Herron’s favourite pursuit of wrong-footing the reader has come at this point in the form of a cliffhanger. Somebody’s just been shot, and we don’t know which of four people has just landed in ‘a puddle that hadn’t been there a moment ago. It swarmed, spread, and formed an inky stream to the gutter….’ There’s a fight going on, and sounds of ‘grief.’ Whose grief? River’s, over the death of the woman—Sid, who else?—that he’s just discovered was assigned to Slough House to keep an eye on him? Her grief over River’s? I wouldn’t put it past Herron to kill off the character we thought was the main protagonist. The former seems more likely, because I can’t imagine anybody shedding tears over Hobden, the journalist who, it appears, has links with ultra-right activists who might be involved with the hostage-taking. And if the victim is the black-clad intruder at Hobden’s flat, apparently there to abduct him at gunpoint, nobody’s going to care at all. Unless the sound of grief are coming from him. Or whoever else is dying….

A lot has happened in three chapters and, unsurprisingly, the subject of conspiracy theories has been raised. As River tells Sid—she had been the one trying to pin him down on the exact nature of his own theory—once it’s proved, it isn’t a theory any more. It’s a conspiracy. Ok.

Things have moved on in the hostage-taking scenario. The captors are threatening to cut off the hostage’s head, live on the internet—and the world has now seen that the hostage is Asian. At Slough House, Herron lets us know of only two people who guess the scenario, River and… Jackson Lamb. Ah. But Lamb is the hated boss and, when he reveals his theory triumphantly to his underlings, River ‘would bite out his own tongue’ rather than tell Lamb he’d had the same thought: an ultra-right group are going to let the whole world believe this is an Islamist atrocity, and the revelation of the hostage’s ethnicity will suddenly make everybody have to completely overturn their own mindset. And won’t some of them have the vestige of the thought that, yes, it’s time these people got a taste of their own medicine? (I’m paraphrasing.) It doesn’t matter that Hassan is apparently a totally innocent victim, a shy student on a Business Studies course who goes to comedy clubs but can’t pluck up the courage to do his act. Anyone who looks like a Muslim will do.

For all River’s prejudices about him, this is a more assured Jackson Lamb than we’re used to—and, later, Diana Taverner speaks about him to one of the slow horses, involved in his own bit of off-piste espionage. Lamb is old-school, one who cut his teeth beyond the ‘Curtain’ before the end of the Cold War. Nobody should underestimate him, is her advice—and, meanwhile, she makes Moody, the no-hoper who’s stepped out of line, that he’s going to have to do everything she asks from now on. And she has a specific job in mind….

The looped video of the hostage has put the Service into a difficult position. They have something like a day and a half to prevent the most damaging incident since the 7/7 London bombings, and we are present at the emergency meeting at which Diana Taverner has the job of explaining to the section bosses below her—or below Ingrid Tierney, Taverner’s own boss—how she is dealing with it. She does ok, despite the point-scoring and rivalries we see at play. (Everyone except Taverner herself is a man, if I remember rightly.) And it’s Moody’s new information, arriving during the meeting, that leads to her secret assignation with him. What has he found out from ‘Nick’—I don’t think we know a Nick—a man who owed him and was apparently able to use the information Moody had illicitly picked up about Hobden being stalked?

What else? Sid, who might be dead by now, had been shaping up to be the love interest. River is a mess—he hasn’t had a girlfriend since a holiday he was having with one while the 7/7 atrocity was happening, and that’s four years ago now—and he rebuffs any attempts she makes to get him to open up. Nor will he admit what he was looking at in the pub when she found him there during working hours. In fact, all he’d found in the files copied from the memory stick, fifteen altogether, seemed to be pi calculated to ‘a million decimal places.’ She’d seen the numbers on his laptop screen, but he’d only offered flippant replies to her questions…

…until he comes out with the truth. This happens when he’s decided to stake out Holden’s flat again, on his own initiative. After an hour, she taps on his car window, holding two coffees. This is when he finds out why she joined the Service—she’d been commuting to a temporary job in a bank in the City when 7/7 happened—and that she was sent to Slough House because that’s where River was. He decides he might as well tell her the truth about copying the files—and that he thinks Hobden might be pulling the strings of desperate members of the brainless ultra-right party, his connections to which had led to his ‘excommunication’ from his comfortable life as a serious journalist. Why else would Lamb be trying to get information on him, or from him, at exactly the time when an Asian hostage is threatened with a grisly on-screen death? (What nobody knows except the reader is tht one of the hostage-takers, ‘Curly’—Hassan’s nickname for him—pretends to be stupid but is actually making phone-calls the others don’t know about. Could he be taking instructions from Hobden? Or is it a lot more convoluted than that?)

And how is Spider Webb involved? And does it have anything to do with the trick he played on River to ruin his career? He can’t think of any reason for Webb to have done it—there was nothing to be gained from it—so… who is pulling Webb’s strings? And how many other questions are there that I haven’t mentioned or haven’t even thought of?

28 March
Chapters 10-13
Ok, four chapters not three. So shoot me down in flames. Or cut my head off. How does it go? ‘He had thought the execution would take place down in the cellar. / But it happened in the kitchen.’ The expectation had been Hassan’s, but—have you guessed?—it isn’t his head that the spooks find on the table. We think it is, because River, who is one of them, recognises it and Jack Lamb spits out, of course he recognises it. We assume it’s because he’s seen it on a looping video, but no. Hassan had heard a scuffle and more than one thud from upstairs, before he’s bundled up to the kitchen to whatever fate awaits him. The noise, as we find out in snatches over the next chapter, had been the sound one of the hostage-takers killing another, then chopping off his head. The face River recognises before scurrying outside to vomit belongs to an agent. He doesn’t know where he’s seen him before—he’d been a slow horse, but had left four months before River’s time—but we know it must be Curly. Except, if you’ve been paying attention to the way Herron likes to do things—I hadn’t been, obviously—it isn’t Curly at all. He’s the one who had welded the axe, making his escape in a car driven by the other hostage-taker, and with Hassan in the boot. And Curly really is a right-wing fanatic. The phone calls had been to the leader of ‘The Voice of Albion’, one fascist splinter-group of the many filling the place of a BNP gone soft, and…

…and what? I should fill in some details. First, the outcome of the shooting at Hobden’s flat. The grief had been River’s—so Herron didn’t kill him off, then—and the blood is Sid’s. She isn’t dead, but a bullet gave her a very messy head-wound and, when he starts to bring River up to speed later, Lamb says she might not live. Which might or might not be true—I’m half-expecting the wound to be much less serious than it might have been, River himself having decided that the size of the gun didn’t matter in a situation like the scuffle in the flat. It’s a .22, and even I know that’s not high-calibre—so maybe this time size does matter. Maybe River will get his first girlfriend in four years after all.

Jack Lamb has got to know about the failure at Hobden’s flat because, under stress, River had called for an ambulance and used real names at the hospital. River, as Lamb reminds him, is not a difficult name to find if you look for it in the right places. (We’ve never been told why Ho works at Slough House, but we’re beginning to understand. Lamb needs him.) Lamb has picked River up from a broom-cupboard in the hospital, where he’s been bundled by a low-ranking Dog sent there as a matter of Regent’s Park routine. And now Lamb wants answers River can’t provide.

Meanwhile…. Before, I only hinted that each chapter is divided into separate sections or scenes, like a movie. These have become shorter and shorter, and there are four or five threads. While Lamb is trying to piece together what’s going on, two slow horses, following their second after-work drink—we’d heard about the first, which had gone nowhere—have gone back into the office to try to find out what’s going on. But one thing leads to another, and they are unzipped by the time they hear a sound upstairs, again. They’d ignored it the first time, but now they are all businesslike sobriety and, after he leaps on one of them, discover their colleague, Moody, in Lamb’s office. He’s doing what Lady Di had told him, including removing the evidence of the illicit listening activities that had got him into trouble with her. More or less by accident, he’s the one who breaks his neck as he and Min, the male slow horse, fall down the stairs. Oh dear.

Next. Next comes Lamb’s meeting with Lady Di herself. And this is where he, and the reader, finally find out what’s been going on. She, Diana Taverner, is behind the hostage-taking. It’s a covert, reputation-grabbing stunt, and the agent she has in place is the one whose face River can’t quite place. Her boss, Ingrid Tierney, is away—she’s on her way back from America as this long night progresses—and this is Taverner’s chance to shine. There’s a spanner in the works, but she tries to convince Lamb the stunt could still be pulled off. Her plan had been to wait until every news outlet in the world is showing a counting-down clock, then have our brave agents make their entrance to save the day. ‘Five’ would look better than it has for years, and she wouldn’t look bad herself. There’d probably be additional funding for the Service, and who knows what good things for her. So long as nobody, ever, knows that it’s a stunt. Ok, so now she has to agree to finish it early, but she’ll do that. What Lamb doesn’t know—although he guesses, in fact—is that if things go wrong she can point the finger at Slough House. Their cock-up, their rogue agents, their boss.

Sorry, but meanwhile…. There’s another spanner in the works that nobody knows about. Hobden, who escaped the melee when Moody (for it was he) ran off, has made his way to the prosperous-looking house of a cabinet minister. He’s clearly based on Boris Johnson, right down to the deliberately archaic turn of phrase and ambitions to be Prime Minister. But, lurking in this man’s past are more than photos of him having upper-class fun at Oxford. Hobden tells him he has a copy of a photo of him giving a Nazi salute, his arm around a high-profile right-winger who was killed some time later. And yes, ‘PJ’—these types love their brand-names—had been involved in the killing, part of the cover-up surrounding this very picture. Hobden says he will publish it unless PJcan stop the hostage-taking before the crazy lefties in power get their way and set back their shared cause for years to come. PJ gets his fixer—he likes to think of him as his batman—to makes some calls.

Enough? There’s masses more, but the main thing is that Jack Lamb really is the unsung hero, despite his self-promotion as the ‘fat bastard’ everybody knows him for. As Taverner says to him, he seems to care for his slow horses—‘They’re my slow horses,’ he says—and River, alone amongst the rest of them that Lamb is rounding up, can see that nobody should mess with Jack Lamb. He’s already got the two agents who happened upon Moody, along with River, and now they are rounding up the others for an assignation ‘by Blake’s grave’. (Where? George Blake, the double agent famous enough to have a play written about him, isn’t dead yet.) Time to finish this.

29 March
Chapters 15-19—to the end
Yep. Everything fits into place neatly, Herron showing us that he knows how to put together a satisfying plot. Which is always one of the most important things about a thriller—but not the only thing. Plot on its own is just machinery. Herron adds an engagingly human dimension, largely (but not exclusively) through those sub-chapters, written in strictly limited third-person mode, each focusing on a single player. Hassan is never a faceless stock victim, but as rounded a wannabe somebody as you would hope to meet in any fiction. Before we even know he’s Pakistani we get his thoughts on his way home from another open mic session at which he’s said nothing—although to hear his thoughts, nobody would know this. He’s riffing inside his own head, and misses the signs tht he’s about to be jumped by three men. Fast-forward…

…to when he’s being driven, he is sure, to his own execution, a part of his nineteen-year-old self musing on how, really, he’s like everybody else. Not for the first or last time, there are ordinary lives going on around the main action of this novel. There’s that imagined bus passenger failing to get a proper glimpse inside Slough House, its drab facelessness part of its nature. We see the unglamorous flats occupied by some of the slow horses—‘lived in’ seems too positive a description of their out-of-hours existence. And, locked inside the boot of the car, Hassan thinks about why he’s on a Business Studies course and not Drama, realising that everybody in an ordinary job once dreamed of something different but now lives a life dictated by the reality of having to ‘fall back’—he uses the phrase himself—on a qualification that can help them earn a living. He even lists some of them in his head.

This way that Herron has of widening the scope beyond the confines of the characters’ immediate concerns is very engaging. Over the past decade or so, plenty of serious writers have decided to write within a popular genre, and the human insights they can offer are at least as interesting as what might be encountered in most literary fiction. There are a lot of characters in Slow Horses—there are a lot of slow horses, about ten in all—but Herron has sketched out an unglamorous back-story, or a life outside office hours, for all but a small handful. They have lives we can identify with, which is part of the reason most people read anything at all.

It means that we care about those players who, whether up to the job or not, want to do the right thing. Herron feeds us details that make us sympathise with them more, like the recovering alcoholic and her ‘breakdown’, mocked by the Dogs and pen-pushers at Regent’s Park. She’s the woman who was, essentially, the PA to a former boss at the Park—and ended up at Slough House because he pretended she was in on the treasonous act he perpetrated, and that finished him. Nobody really believed it, but mud sticks. And we care about Hassan, too. We’re glad when the axe-wielding Curley, chasing Hassan across rough ground in Epping Forest, trips over the root Hassan had spotted in time. Herron makes it satisfying, rather than merely convenient—although it’s that as well—by having Curly call out to Hassan that it takes a born Englishman to know about life beyond the city. Hassan has told Curly, in a once-only tirade when he is certain he is about to die, that he makes him feel ashamed to be British. So it’s irony upon irony when Curly is the one with the broken ankle.

There’s an exception to all this close contact with the inner lives of the characters we care about. We never, ever get to know more about Jackson Lamb than he cares to show anybody else, and that’s more or less nothing. He cultivates his image as fat bastard despite the last third of the novel revealing him to be the best agent of any of them. He’s not only competent—Herron has a Regent’s Park spook quote an old warning about never trusting a fat one in case he turns out to be Jackson Lamb—but he clearly has an unimpeachable moral core. He, like all the slow horses left standing after two have been picked up and forced into making false statements about him, is only interested in the best outcome. He’s not interested in promotion, and doing what’s best for the Service, he wants to do the right thing. For him, unlike Diana Taverner, rescuing Hassan is a priority. And, in a sideshow that will save River’s career, he wants to prevent her from running Regent’s Park as a faceless bunch of pen-pushers with her doing anything she has to to stay at the top.

He manages this by way of an elaborate piece of plot machinery, involving a highly unfeasible coincidence, that we accept because it works so smoothly. We’ve forgotten all about how River tailed Lady Di for two days as part of his assessment; what we aren’t expecting is that River ha finally remembered where he sawthe now headless undercover agent. He not only saw him deep in conversation with Taverner after his departure from the Service—but he has photographs to prove it. Ah… so that’s why Spider Webb was delegated to ruin River forever. Webb, as we’ve suspected from the start, is turning into a deskbound career pen-pusher—the best thing to be in the modern secret service. When told to shaft his colleague, he doesn’t think twice. And if it hadn’t been for his connection with the OB, River would have been out for good.

There’s some James Bond-style shenanigans when Lamb—I’m starting to think of his as James Bond gone to seed, an old-school throwback who’s the only one around who knows how to do this stuff properly—as he smuggles River in and buys him some time to rough Webb up and find the file. (He knows Webb will play by ‘London Rules’, which means that covering your own back takes priority over absolutely everything else–so he will have kept the incriminating evidence.) Webb has filed the dossier under ‘F’ for Fiasco, a word he had used the day before when taking a pop at River’s incompetence. Thanks, Spider, thinks River.

Lamb buys him this time by hoaxing Taverner and Nick Duffy with a fake bomb he’s had the concealed River place in the car he’s just returned to the Park—he hijacked the car when Duffy underestimated Catherine, the former alcoholic, who had Lamb’s gun in her bag when he tried to take them both in. But soon the game’s up, and Taverner is gloating over how she’s going to put Lamb through a gruelling week of interrogation ‘downstairs—don’t ask—until he confesses to masterminding the hostage-taking. Enter River, wearing Webb’s shirt, jacket and tie, with the dodgy dossier. You couldn’t make it up… but, as I said, we’re willing to forgive it because it’s such a satisfying moment. River gets his vindication, Taverner realises she’ll have to dance to Lamb’s tune now—he’s going to stay at Slough House, but she’ll never be able to do anything without his say-so—and Lamb is proven to be the best. What could be more agreeable?

What have I missed? Plot details, I guess, and little interactions that give us an ever more rounded picture of the surviving slow horses. Ho, for instance, really is brilliant with a computer and keyboard—but that’s all he’s good with. He’s at Slough House because nobody at Regent’s Park could stand his company for long enough to let him stay. With Catherine’s insider knowledge and his ability to hack into almost anything digital, he is able to track the car, which is easily traced because Taverner’s agent had hired it without needing to cover his tracks. They aren’t able to save Hassan, but Herron saves him instead, so that’s all right. And…

…and that’s enough. Except we’re left with a coda that invites that imaginary onlooker from the bus—Herron has let her step off it and get a better view—to foresee a life for Lamb and the others following their triumph. We see their desks, including three empty ones. One of them, mysteriously, is Sid’s—mysterious because all trace of her, not only as an agent in the Service but also as a patient at the hospital where she might or might not have died. River keeps a hair-slide of hers on the empty desk, but otherwise, she’s gone. And the observer’s gaze reaches up another floor to Lamb, and our omniscient narrator has already equipped her with ‘some sophisticated piece of surveillance kit that allows her … to unpeel their thoughts.’ So we’re inside Lamb’s, musing on how he had ‘watched Diana Taverner realise that he’d outplayed her, and if he can outplay her, he can surely find more worthy enemies.’ Herron has got himself a sweating, farting old-school hero and, I now know, those ‘Jackson Lamb thrillers’ were yet to come when this one was first published.

Bring on those worthy enemies.