The hapless gang from Slough House are back, in all their decidedly non-glory in Mick Herron's second book in the Slough House trilogy, Dead Lions (2013, Soho Press). Jackson Lamb is farting around (literally) with plots that may or may not have anything to do with anything. (But rest assured that if Jackson Lamb is involved, it probably has to do with something, and particularly something that may stick it to his masters.) Louisa and Min are testing their relationship, River is brooding over his "failures" and seeking advice from his famous grandfather, and Catherine is actually pulling the strings. Formulaic? Perhaps. But enjoyable as well.
Minus the (now dead) cute girl and with a few new additions, most of the slow horses once again find themselves in the middle of an op that no stand-up Regents Park agent wants anything to do with. Russians are involved as both old-school and very modern bad guys, so you know it's going to be good.
"'Little chat about old, times, Nicky.'
"There are no old times. Don't you keep up? Memory Lane's been paved over. They built a shopping mall on it.'
'You can take the man out of Russia,' Lamb observed, 'but he'll still reckon he's some kind of tragic fucking poet.'" (107)
Are there any spy novels where it ISN'T good when the Russians are involved? Speaking of Russians, I'll bet Smiley fans like myself will also find themselves reminded of the great and kind of tragic Sovietologist Connie Sachs when they meet Molly Doran in records.
Also back is the same split-screen style, switching scenes as the action unfolds simultaneously in various locations. London is central, natch, but also a small town in the countryside that is a little less charming than it might be in the hands of a lesser writer. Best pay attention or risk confusion. I don't mind it, but can imagine that some would find the jumping about distracting.
That said, Herron is a great writer. I can imagine that some would find his style drifting toward pretentious, or even archly incomprehensible at times. But I admire a writer who correctly uses the word nonplussed (33), and especially one who comes up with a brilliantly descriptive paragraph like this:
"London slept, but fitfully, its every other eye wide open. the ribbon of light atop the Telecom Tower unfurled again and again, traffic lights blinked through unvarying sequence, and electronic posters affixed to bus stops rotated and paused, rotated and paused, drawing an absent public's attention to unbeatable mortgage deals. There were fewer cars, playing louder music, and the bass pulse that trailed in their wake pounded the road long after they'd gone. From the zoo leaked muffled shrieks and strangled growls. And on a pavement obscured by trees, leaning on a railing, a man smoked a cigarette, the light at its tip glowing brighter then dying, brighter then dying, as if he too were part of the city's heartbeat, performing the same small actions over and over, all through the watches of the night." (263)
I can't recall when I've read a better description of a city at night. Kind of the photo-negative of Sky Masterson's "My Time of Day."