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by Mick Herron
Soho, June 2018
336 pages
ISBN: 1616959614

Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

LONDON RULES opens in post-Brexit England. Change may be on the way in the wider country, but in central London, where the inmates of Slough House, that disreputable poor relation of MI5, have been exiled as a result of their operational failures, little changes. Those surviving members of previous books are set to mind-numbing tasks involving Public Lending Rights statistics and the tax rolls presumably in the hope that boredom will carry them off either to early retirement or death. Though they may be a hapless bunch, they are far from hopeless and if they have been sidelined, they are still trained in spycraft and protective of each other and themselves.

The prologue describes an outrage that seems somewhat more specifically relevant to recent events than has appeared in earlier volumes, where the emphasis tended to be on bureaucratic fumbling and outcaste survival. The threat of random acts of terror is an immediate concern and though LONDON RULES is often hugely funny, this is one area that Herron takes both seriously and with respect, at least as far as its victims are concerned. The book opens with a virtually pointless attack described in terms that evoke Afghanistan but here applied to a village in Derbyshire. The ironic point is clear, but not cheaply achieved.

Back in London, one of Slough House's least appealing characters, Roddy Ho, is under personal attack. Were it not for colleague Shirley Dander, recovering coke head, he would have been flattened by a Honda. As it is, he winds up under Shirley's body tackle. Is he grateful? Don't bother to ask. No rounds of applause back at Slough House, either, at least from its head, the thoroughly foul-mouthed Derek Lamb. Lamb prides himself on his ability with a double entendre and on his evident talent for willful flatulence, which Herron characterizes as "paradoxically bottomless." Readers of earlier books may ask if Lamb is mellowing at all. He is not. He remains the most unapologetically vile central character of any series of recent memory.

As it gradually becomes evident that the terrorists are following an old playbook that had its origins in MI5 itself, all hands are drawn into the fight to prevent another carnage. Herron's talent for plot is brilliantly evident even as events unfold within the ironic frame of the author's jaundiced eye. The attack on Ho, a second slaughter, the death of a public figure, even the oafish incompetence of the terrorists themselves, all link up and make total sense, at least in the world that we sadly share with Slough House, a world that makes the challenges met by George Smiley seem easily met.

Herron does something that I find extraordinary. LONDON RULES is often so funny that you ought to avoid reading it on public transport, where solitary giggling is looked at with some disquiet. But Herron is also a student of Dickens, especially the Dickens of BLEAK HOUSE and OUR MUTUAL FRIEND. He is able to draw upon that example of a seemingly effortless rise from the gutters and trash heaps to an eloquence that carries the reader toward the sky. This book is comic, but Herron never diminishes the tragedy of innocent death even while exposing the essential absurdity of those who inflict it. Nor is he without hope. At the end of the book, people are gathering in the Abbey for a memorial in honour of the folks who died at Abbotsfield village. It is an event that necessarily takes place surrounded by armed police and in the fear that yet again some will succeed in wreaking terror. But Londoners and visitors gather all the same:

Abbotsfield could have been anywhere and London is anywhere too. This is what London and its sister cities have learned: that hate crime pollutes the soul, but only the souls of those who commit it. When those who mourn stand together, their separate chimes sounding in unison if only for a moment, they remain unstained.

To my mind, the Slough House series is essential reading for the times we seem to have lurched into without quite knowing how we got there. The series offers no solutions, but it does offer irony, laughter, and hope in ample measure and we can use all of those we can get.

Yvonne Klein is a writer, translator, and retired college English professor who lives in Montreal. She's been editing RTE since 2008.

Reviewed by Yvonne Klein, May 2018

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)

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