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by Mick Herron
Soho, May 2013
347 pages
ISBN: 1616952253

Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

If you are looking for an edge-of-your-seat thriller with a cast of talented and dedicated MI5 agents working together to prevent a catastrophe that threatens England's national security, then you should put this book down immediately and look for a different one. But if you're in the mood for a smart, well-written, engaging and hilarious novel in which sidelined spooks get up to more trouble than their masters think them capable of, you're in the right place.

Jackson Lamb, the supervisor of a crew of MI5 agents who have derailed their careers one way or another and ended up in professional limbo working at trivial tasks in an office called Slough House, has the manners of a badly-brought up eight-year-old and the instincts of an old school spy. When Dickie Bow, a retired alcoholic ex-spook is found dead on a bus, Lamb heads out to examine the scene. He finds Bow's cellphone pushed down between two seats. On it, there's a cryptic message: cicadas. Lamb has been a part of the circus long enough to know what that refers to, though what it might actually mean is another matter.

Meanwhile two of his band are summoned by a supercilious official in a more respectable part of the service to play minders for a wealthy Russian oligarch who might one day move up into a position of power drawing the official upward in his orbit, or so he hopes. Roderick Ho, the resident technology whiz, has written some code that records his diligent work on an endless archiving project, leaving him free to play computer games and stalk women through social networks women who turn out to be just as mendacious about their profiles as he is. And two new "slow horses" are eying each other suspiciously, wondering what the other did to deserve a desk at Slough House and which will have a crack at advancement.

Mick Herron is a masterful writer who can tell a story from multiple perspectives while building momentum. His characters are in some ways cartoonish, but so well drawn that they are far more nuanced than figures in more traditional espionage stories. The hapless Dickie Bow, for example, has a warmth and complexity that you wouldn't expect for a character who has only a few pages to live and breathe before he's dispatched. Herron has a knack for social comedy as well as a lovely way with words. Though this book is proceeded by a first book in the series, SLOW HORSES, he has made it possible to read DEAD LIONS without needing to start at the beginning. It's a marvelous, intelligent, and entertaining romp that is likely to appeal to fans of Reginald Hill's Dalziel and Pascoe series.

Oh, and though Herron has no time for the patriotic melodrama that drives so much spy fiction, there is enough edge-of-your-seat action to make the pages fairly fly past.

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

Reviewed by Barbara Fister, May 2013

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)

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