Real Tigers by Mick Herron

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Review by Annabel

Herron is one of my favourite author discoveries of recent years. Real Tigers is the third of Mick Herron’s ‘Jackson Lamb’ series of spy novels, following Slow Horses and Dead Lions.

Previously, I’d only read the first, Slow Horses (reviewed here), but found that it was alright to jump to the third; the references to the second novel are few and don’t affect the reading of Real Tigers – it stands on its own well. You will, however, want to return to read more of the background to the characters in the others in the series if you enjoy this novel.

Slough House is a secret service backwater in an unglamorous street just outside the City of London. It is where disgraced agents get reassigned to, to finish off their careers in the MI5 spooks business doing humdrum paperwork – except that sometimes they do come in useful.

A prologue starts with a murder and a killer first line or two: –

Like most forms of corruption, it began with men in suits.

Batman pushes Spider-man off a bridge before he can unfurl his banner, A FAIR DEAL FOR FATHERS. Suits indeed!

We turn to Slough House and PA to the boss, Catherine Standish is just leaving. She has an uneasy feeling that she’s being followed … She is – by Sean Donovan, a former soldier and lover from her drunk days, now cashiered and fresh out of jail. But is it a chance meeting?

Of course not! Later Catherine is kidnapped and when asked which of her colleagues she’d trust with her life, she says River Cartwright. They send him a message – he must breach MI5 HQ’s defences to retrieve a file in return for Catherine’s life – and he has only got 90 minutes. The denizens of Slough House aren’t allowed into HQ unless specifically invited. River doesn’t stop to think – he must blag his way in and the clock is ticking…

This much is outlined in the blurb, so I’m not giving anything away. I’m not going to explain the plot in detail any further except to say that in this installment Jackson Lamb’s group of washed-up intelligence officers will be ‘tested’ to the limit.

Meanwhile, before the call comes to River, we get to (re)acquaint ourselves with the crew at Slough House, including Roderick Ho – computer whizz who doesn’t understand women, Louisa – the object of his affections, and newer additions Shirley and Marcus. They are all wondering where Catherine is when she didn’t turn up for work.

Lamb killed his cigarette in yesterday’s half-full teacup.
‘Besides,’ he said, ‘It’s not like her to disappear.’
‘Disappear is a bit strong,’ said Shirley.
‘Really? What would you call it?’
‘…Not being here?’

What makes Herron’s spy novels stand out from the crowd is that although they concentrate on the enemy within – internal politics between government, ministers, the service and its different layers and departments – they have a dark sense of humour which is always to the fore. From Lamb’s farting, non-PC quips and grumbling of his minions to the more stylised heavy irony of the powers that be, this adds considerably to us cheering on the underdogs of Slough House.

I love all the characters, and it’s great to see some well-drawn female ones in the mix. The plot may be labyrinthine but Herron keeps it fresh, fast-moving and fun. Bring on volume 4!

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Annabel is one of the Shiny editors.

Mick Herron, Real Tigers (2016) John Murray, Hardback, 353 pages.

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