Sunday, January 17, 2016

The List

I bought a bunch of books from Soho Press in December, because they promised a free copy of Mick Herron's novella The List with my order.  The books I paid for are uneven in quality, but The List delivers.

Herron likes to write about the losers in intelligence work.  He is best known for his Slough House trilogy, wherein he discusses the pathetic existence of those who've messed up spectacularly but whom "it'd be impolitic to sack."  They eke out a living doing mindless back office work that sometimes actually results in something.  Even Herron's stand-alones reference one or more of the Slow Horses, as they're known, and this one is no exception.  In The List, the sort-of protagonist John Bachelor - you can't really call him a Hero, or even an Anti-Hero - misses an obvious signal with one of the assets he babysits, and sets in motion a small, inconsequential chain of events that sends another character to Slough House, where he with the infamous Jackson Lamb.  The story is so short, and there isn't a lot more than this but it has a nifty trajectory and ends, well, it won't take you long to read and find out.

The story doesn't move fast, and there isn't much action, but the writing is economical, and the precise description and careful language bring John le Carr√© to mind.  As does the way Herron somehow manages to keep the Cold War relevant, even in the 21st c.  There is a palpable sense that the Park, as MI5 is referred to given its location in Regent's Park, is not so much coasting on earlier laurels, as it is perpetually teetering on the brink of disastrous failure.  Somehow the modern world, with all its technology and vague but every now and then very real global threats, is more difficult for intelligence operatives to navigate than the previous bilateral one.  Herron sums this up beautifully when he notes that Bachelor, who "worked for the secret service in an era where half the population aired its private life on the web . . .  wasn't sure the Cold War had been preferable, but it had been more dignified."  JlC would approve.

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