In MI5 a scandal is brewing and there are bad actors everywhere.
A key member of a Downing Street think-tank has disappeared without a trace. Claude Whelan, one-time First Desk of MI5’s Regent’s Park, is tasked with tracking her down. But the trail leads straight back to Regent’s Park HQ itself, with its chief, Diana Taverner, as prime suspect. Meanwhile her Russian counterpart has unexpectedly shown up in London but has slipped under MI5’s radar.
Over at Slough House, the home for demoted and embittered spies, the slow horses are doing what they do best: adding a little bit of chaos to an already unstable situation.
In a world where lying, cheating and backstabbing is the norm, bad actors are bending the rules for their own gain. If the slow horses want to change the script, they’ll need to get their own act together before the final curtain.
I used to read the Slough House books with a surprised glee. I was impressed by the unexpected lyricism of the introductions, fascinated by the tortured existence imposed on the occupants of Slough House by Jackson Lamb, the grotesque to whose dominion they had been condemned for their sins and delighted by the wickedly insightful insider view of the realities of British politics that I was given.
Now, things have changed. I’m not surprised anymore and my glee has curdled as I have come to understand that what is presented to me here about British politics, unpleasant as it is, is more factual than fictional. Only the names have been changed to attack the guilty.
The pleasure I took in ‘Bad Actors’, my eighth visit to Slough House was more rueful than gleeful. Sadly, the least realistic thing about a plot which involved a Russian spy influencing policy in Downing Street, was that the scandal was covered up. These days, it would be splashed across the tabloids for five minutes, be rigorously denied until the pictures and audio snippets his the public domain and then we’d all be told that it was time to move on. I feel no guilt for having greatly enjoyed seeing bad things happen to the Special Advisor who was not of course Dominic Cummings but who provided a satisfyingly accurate effigy to burn in his stead.
The two moments that stood out for me in this book were both action-oriented and both glorious in their way.
The first was the way in which Diana Tavener, hunted and apparently powerless and corned, extricated herself from trouble. It demonstrated her character perfectly: it was cunning and ruthless and its success pivoted on abusing the denizens of Slough House and prevailing through the force of her reputation for both surviving and taking revenge.
The second was seeing Shirley Dander give way to full-on berserker violence in the face of what should have been overwhelming force but which she turned into a series of targets to humiliate. I thought the attack on the retreat that Dander was staying in was beautifully done and a perfect example of why I enjoy these books, even though they no longer surprise me. The situation managed to be both absurd and filled with menace. The violence was both terrible and joyful. Shirley Dander was, for once, in exactly the right place doing exactly the right thing and it was wonderful to see.
I hope that there are many more Slough House books and that in one of them, someday soon, the pot will revolve around how the carrion crows in Westminster, who are currently feasting on our wounded and bleeding democracy, are finally brought down. Although that’s probably too much of a fantasy to make its way into a Slough House novel.