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by Mick Herron
Soho, January 2018
261 pages
ISBN: 1616958618

Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

In addition to a private investigator series and a couple of standalones, Mick Herron has written a quartet of hilarious if bitter-tinged stories about failed spies put out to pasture in Slough House, where they manage to catch some dramatic cases despite their banishment. (The second of these, DEAD LIONS (2013) earned him the prestigious CWA Gold Dagger award.) He's a talented author, combining John LeCarré's intricate hall-of-mirrors critique of British intelligence with a wild imagination and a Rabelaisian sense of humor. His new novel, THIS IS WHAT HAPPENED, takes elements of the familiar spy story, with its secrets and switchback betrayals, and locks them inside a tightly-sealed box of psychological suspense.

Maggie Barnes is just starting her life in London, with a job in the mail room of a giant office building. She hasn't made any friends yet and has tentatively reached out to the world on Twitter, posting one picture of the cake she's ordered at a cafe - "nom, nom" - not really sure how it's supposed to work. Unlike her more successful sister, she is utterly alone in the big city until a stranger takes a seat at her table and makes small talk – small talk that turns into a request that she help defeat a plot against England being hatched by Chinese powers in her own office tower.

As the book opens, she's undertaking her secret mission for her MI5 handler, sneaking through the building at night, playing mouse to the security staff cats. What happens next . . . well, it's impossible to say without spoilers. Let's just say the claustrophobic London neighborhood where Maggie lives would be familiar territory to Ruth Rendell.

This short, tightly plotted novel riffs on the insular paranoia that powered the Brexit campaign and on the isolating fever of social media news feeds clamoring with news of disaster and loss. Though readers may stumble over one plot point early on that requires a significant suspension of disbelief, it's worth it to take a deep breath and carry on. After all, in an era that could bring us both Brexit and President Trump, just about anything is possible.

§ Barbara Fister is an academic librarian, columnist, and author of the Anni Koskinen mystery series.

Reviewed by Barbara Fister, December 2017

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)

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