In London's MI5 headquarters a scandal is brewing that could disgrace the entire intelligence community. The Downing Street superforecaster—a specialist who advises the Prime Minister's office on how policy is likely to be received by the electorate—has disappeared without a trace. Claude Whelan, who was once head of MI5, has been tasked with tracking her down. But the trail leads him straight back to Regent's Park itself, with First Desk Diana Taverner as chief suspect. Has Taverner overplayed her hand at last? Meanwhile, her Russian counterpart, Moscow intelligence's First Desk, has cheekily showed up in London and shaken off his escort. Are the two unfortunate events connected?
The newest Slough House spy novel by Mick Herron, has at last arrived ... We can dispense with the plot fairly swiftly, because plot isn’t — at least for me — the book’s chief attraction ... What spurs me to keep reading each new installment is Herron’s absurdist voice, which could devolve into cheap cynicism but never does. That’s why the Slough House denizens, from Jackson Lamb to Roddy Ho to newcomer Ashley Kahn, maintain pathos in the face of parody.
Herron's plots are masterpieces of convolution and elegant wrong-footing. Beyond that, his action scenes are fast-paced and thrilling — there are a couple of high-octane doozies in this installment. But the real draw of the series is its dark, dark humor. Much of it is interpersonal, but the most biting of all concerns the state of Britain, a country beset by Brexit, COVID and incompetent, if mercenary, leadership ... If there is bad news, it is that you really should have read some of the previous Slough House novels in order to get a handle on this party of rejects, their histories and capabilities. Further, if you are a veteran of the series, you may have become a little weary of Jackson Lamb's extravagant foulness and his habit of magicking cigarettes and even himself out of nowhere. That said, this is still one of the most enjoyable series I have ever read.
The final pay off had me in tears ... Herron has dialled back a little from the heartbreak of previous books in favour of a more overtly comic formulation. His unique, wry humour has always been present in the series of course, whether it be satire or the more outrageous insults that are Lamb’s forté, but Bad Actors is more a comic novel than a spy novel with comic moments. Perhaps the decision is a reaction to how real life has been in Britain over the last couple of years. That’s not to say there aren’t more serious moments; Shirley Dander in rehab is ripe for comic exploration, but Herron also finds pathos in her situation ... another triumph in one of the strongest crime series of the last decade.