Sunday, 17 January 2016

Mick Herron: Nobody Walks

Although you wouldn’t think it from my comments on Slow Horses, I became quite the Mick Herron fan afterward, painstakingly hoovering up all of his published work except for the impossible to find collection of short stories which his website still insists is available on Kindle; if you’re reading this, Mick, make your website true. I want to give you more of my money.

Herron-logy breaks into two big lumps and some bridging material. Lump one is the Zoe Boehm books, which share Zoe and some other recurring characters, and drift in and out of contact with the secret state as the books unfold. Lump two is Slough House, which is all about the secret state, and which has another book coming out one of these days. Hovering round the edges are Reconstruction and Nobody Walks, both of which are about the secret state colliding with more ordinary problems, but somehow failing to involve Zoe or Slough House. Salted in and around all the books are stray cross references which make it clear that they’re all happening in the same world, as characters in Reconstruction comment on the outrageous behaviour of villains from the Boehm books, and the screw-ups in Reconstruction echo into Slough House and so on. Herron’s characters are scraping by in a big disappointing world, where everyone knows everyone, and no-one really knows what they’re doing. The winners, more often than not, are the people who know it’s less important to have a plan than it is to have the sense that no-one else’s plans are going to work either, and the steely reflexes to pounce at the first sign of failure.

I bought Nobody Walks more or less as methadone while I waited for some more Slough House (or even some more Zoe Boehm). The title and the jacket copy sounded bleak, and Herron’s last stand-alone didn’t end cheerily for anyone. And so it proves. Happy endings are in short supply all around. But man, it’s good while it lasts. Herron’s got a fine easy style, even if I’ve complained in the past that the sharp dialogue isn’t as distinct as the characterisation behind it. Herron can sketch a character in a few lines, but can’t always give the same character a voice as distinctive as he deserves. Mind, that’s pretty much his only weakness. The plots are clever and grounded in a solid appreciation of human weakness and happenstance; Herron’s working statement seems to be “Things happen for a reason. A dumb, selfish reason."

All in all, it’s a good book which I ripped through in a couple of days. But writing this reminds me that the real credit belongs to Zoe Boehm. I know that Herron prefers to refer to them as the Oxford series, but I can think of no better way to explain what’s really going on than the reaction I had to the fourth book, Smoke and Whispers; it opens with the news of Zoe’s death and the return of the main character from Herron’s first ever book to investigate that report. I read the whole book in a gallop, hoping against hope that the rumours of her death had been greatly exaggerated. That’s good writing right there. What’s perhaps more notable is that it’s good writing about women; in those four books, Herron gives us female characters who don’t just feel like men with girl names. There’s an eye for detail in all of his writing, and somehow that eye has caught something that most male writers gloss over.

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