Thank you, Soho Crime Club, I knew you'd come through! Finally, an offering from this good group that I didn't want to put down. Mick Herron's Nobody Walks (Soho Crime, 2015) is a knockout. Short, taut, dark, and well-written, this standalone tale of a former MI5 agent loaded for bear is a great read.
Herron is best known (by me anyway) for his Slough House trilogy about washed-up rejects from MI5's Regents Park headquarters. I've only read two of them, but you'll note that I've enjoyed the characters, and the plots, even if they were occasionally so twisted as to be deeply confusing. You are never quite sure who came out ahead, however that is construed, in a Mick Herron tale. That's a good thing because it means you keep thinking about the book after you've finished it.
Our Antihero, Tom Bettany, is a man with a past, and while it takes a little for that past to be revealed, his character has a psychic weight that indicates dark depths, right from the get-go. He is informed early on of his estranged son's death, and sets out on what seems to be a bull-headed and futile search for whomever is responsible. I had a hard time getting at his motivation, but I finally figured out that this, like other Herron stories, is basically an indictment of MI5 and their methods for training, using, and discarding personnel. Bettany may just be responding to latent guilt over his interactions with his family when he was an active agent - or he may have been so programmed by MI5 that he can't reign in his hunting instinct when primed. There are several references to Bettany's being locked and loaded, a victim himself of the British government's efforts to combat crime and terrorism. In other words, this is a story to delight the conspiracy-theorists among you.
I love Herron's writing style. Sometimes he waxes almost poetic, but darkly so:
"In the morning London exhaled, and its breath was foul. It swam upwards from drains and gutters. It formed pockets of gas in corners, and burst in noxious clouds from cars' rear ends." (67)
That'll cure you of your Anglophilia!
Herron is also a master of the toss-off detail, that isn't particularly relevant to the story but sets a character so completely. Consider this description of Dame Ingrid Tearney, head of MI5:
"Despite the publicity, she was never recognised, of this she was certain. She'd never been an agent - her route to the head of the Intelligence Service had been largely via committee - but she had her smarts, and few illusions about herself. She sometimes drew a second glance, and knew full well why. But if she ever drew a third it would be someone realising who she was, and that never happened.
It helped, of course, that her hair alternated between the iron grey, a much curlier black and a really quite buttery blonde. Her wigs were expensive, age-appropriate, and functional From the age of fifteen, Ingrid Tearney had been completely bald." (69)
It's totally irrelevant to the story, and never appears again, but the early baldness bit really cements the idea of a woman who from an early age, has gotten ahead solely on brains.
You don't need to have read Herron's other books to get this one, although some characters do have a passing mention here. But you should start reading some Mick Herron soon.