Russian sleeper agents and the misfits of MI5

sleeper agentsDead Lions (Slough House #2), by Mick Herron

@@@@@ (5 out of 5)

A long-retired former British secret service officer named Dickie Bow recognizes a face from the past. He impulsively sets out to follow the man on a train from London to Worcester, and later on the bus passengers boarded when the train ground to a halt. Soon, sitting a few rows behind the familiar Russian “hood,” he keels over dead on the back seat. Dickie had never noticed the sharp pain in his thigh that occurred when close behind the man as they crowded onto the bus. Though a routine autopsy ruled Dickie’s death the result of a heart attack, Jackson Lamb is convinced otherwise. Dickie was a relic and never much of an operative, but Jackson can’t be persuaded that any former spook could simply die on a bus so many miles from where he was expected to be. Dickie didn’t even have a ticket for the train.

Jackson is not your run-of-the-mill spook. Despite his extensive field experience in MI6 and a later career in MI5, he has been put out to pasture running Slough House. This run-down London facility houses a motley collection of Secret Service misfits. Jackson, now fat and slovenly, holds forth from his top-floor office with undisguised ill will toward his hapless charges. Every one of them has been exiled to Slough House because of some disastrous misstep. “They called them the slow horses. The screw-ups. The losers.” Now “they belonged to Jackson Lamb.” And no one at Slough House has ever been reassigned to Regent’s Park, where MI5 is headquartered.

Screw-ups they may be. But the slow horses still possess the advantages that brought them to MI5. There’s Roderick Ho, a misanthrope to be sure, but a computer hacker of unsurpassed skill. River Cartwright, with his unfailing memory—and a grandfather who was a legend in the agency. Catherine Standish, who virtually ran MI5 as assistant to the late former managing director. Min Harper, an otherwise talented officer who had mislaid a computer disk containing top-secret material on an underground train, only to wake up to a discussion of its contents on the morning BBC news. He’s sleeping with Louisa Guy, who is very tough indeed, an ability that no doubt explains her presence at Slough House in some undesirable way. Two newcomers round out the crew, replacing two who died in Slow Horses, the first volume in Mick Herron’s beautifully executed series of espionage novels.

Now, in the second book, Dead Lions, the misfits are drawn into the investigation of Dickie Bow’s death and a seemingly unrelated assignment to provide protection for a visiting Russian oligarch. Since this is fiction, we will not be surprised to learn that the two assignments will turn out to be related. They both involve a surprising collection of Russian sleeper agents (the “dead lions” of the title). But there’s a great deal of fun to be had in the telling. Oh, by the way, all this work—these “assignments”—are off the books. Slow horses are expected to expire of terminal boredom at their desks or move on to other jobs.

Dead Lions, like its prequel, is a thoroughly successful espionage novel. It’s very funny, too.

My review of Slow Horses, the first entry in the series, is at British satire about misfit spies in MI5. You may also be interested in reading about My 10 favorite espionage novels.

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Mal Warwick