“Joe Country – Slough House #6” by Mick Herron

Well-written, atmospheric, deeply English spy story with a merciless body count and a finger on the pulse of contemporary British political scandal, BUT it’s starting to feel repetitive and formulaic.

“Joe Country” is a solid contemporary British spy story with all the strengths I’ve come to expect from Mick Herron.

The writing is up to its usual very high standard, effortlessly blending lyrical reflection, perfectly evoked landscapes, closely observed social nuance and credible, brutal action.

He introduces new characters to Slough House and continues to develop the existing ensemble cast. The violence is real and merciless and even characters we are heavily invested in are not assured of making it to the end of the novel alive. The character sketches of Lamb and his slow horses are intense and believable, although there is a sense of getting that last squeeze of the lemon from Lamb’s personal history.

The plot, which pulls us out of London and down to a coastal village, revolves around a Royal scandal that, if the press reports about Prince Andrew are to be believed, is only a small extrapolation from reality.

English politics, as Herron describes it, would, in earlier times have been seen as overly conspiratorial but now simply reflects the scary cynicism and callous indifference of government ministers in a country where they are herding us off the Brexit cliff while waving the flag, invoking the Dunkirk spirit and encouraging the sheep to have more belief in their ability to fly rather than fall.

Here’s part of a dinner conversation between the new First Desk of the intelligence service and a disgraced former Minister, last seen attempting a coup and arranging an attack on a member of the intelligence service. He has just announced that his spell in the private sector is a “sabbatical” prior to his return to politics. She says:

“A come back? Seriously? With your history?”

His reply sums up the well-founded arrogance and complacency of our Eton-educated, effortlessly-entitled, narcissistic leaders:

“Do you want to know the thing about history? It’s over. That’s its purpose, A few years in the wilderness breaking bread with the lepers and you can return rinsed and pure, your sins not so much forgiven as wiped from the public memory. Oh, the occasional high-minded journalist might pick up some long-forgotten peccadillo but it’s one of the blessings of an electorate with a low attention span that once you’re out of jail and passed go, you’re golden.”

If this were my first Slough House book, I’m sure I’d have finished it with a satisfied sigh and a five-star rating, but it’s my sixth Slough House book and I ended it feeling that some of it was too familiar to the point of being repetitive and formulaic.

I can see that it’s hard to keep a team that is supposedly sidelined and staffed exclusively with screw-ups at the centre of the most important intelligence action in the country. It requires something with either a personal connection to the players or the kind of threat that the rest of the intelligence community is either unaware of or deliberately looking away from. In “Joe Country” this leads to the re-emergence of old bad guys and a plot that requires more effort at the suspension of disbelief than usual.

I got the feeling that “Joe Country” was one of those move-the-story-arc-along books, worth a read but not memorable. I suspect we’re close to the end of the viable life of Slough House. There are hints in the book that Lamb’s self-abuse is catching up with him and his political capital is decaying as regimes change.

I’ll still be in the queue to buy “Slough House #7 when it comes out but I’m hoping that it will feel a little crisper and more purposeful than “Joe Country”.

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