Wednesday, August 5, 2020

Review of Joe Country by Mick Herron (2019, John Murray)

River Cartwright’s grandfather, the Old Bastard and master spy, has died and an old foe shows up at the funeral. The ‘slow horses’ of Slough House – intelligence officers that have messed up their careers – have unfinished business and set off in pursuit. Except for Louisa Guy, who has requested leave to track down the missing son of a fellow former horse and now dead lover, and Lech Wicinski, a new transfer to Slough House who is busy trying to work out who sabotaged his career and personal life. Meanwhile, the head of the Service is too busy fighting political battles to worry too much about what her rejects are up to in Joe Country, and their boss Jackson Lamb is happy to give them their heads, even if it means they might lose them.

Joe Country is the sixth instalment in the wonderful ‘Slough House’ series that follows the exploits of a set of washed-up intelligence agents who’ve been put out to pasture, consigned to meaningless, menial tasks. In this outing, while each of the 'slow horses' continues to deal with their own personal demons, they also set off into Joe Country – entering the field as active agents – in order to track down an old foe. But this is somewhat of a solo run, without the back-up and resources of the Service, against professional opposition in a remote corner of Wales in the depths of winter. It seems certain that not everyone is going to make it home. Which is a hallmark and strength of the series – Herron creates a wonderful set of characters, lets the reader invest in them, and then kill off them off in subsequent books, always in service to the story. It’s a remarkably effective in terms of adding emotional resonance to the tale, but also keeping the series fresh as new misfits are cycled through Slough House. And half the fun is trying to guess who’ll be for the chop. While Joe Country is an engaging and entertaining read, with Lamb’s acerbic commentaries, snide commentary of contemporary politics, and the chase in the snow a delight, in my view it was one the weaker books in the series, with the thread linking the various elements somewhat tenuous, coincidental and underdeveloped. This gave the plot a contrived feel, held together with relatively weak plot devices. Nonetheless, it was still an enjoyable read and provides a nice setup to the next instalment.

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