08 May 2018

Library Limelights 159

Mick Herron. Slow Horses. UK: Constable & Robinson Ltd, 2010.
Make no mistake about the laugh-out-loud elements of Herron's style and unique cast of characters; the Slough House novels are thrillers through and through. Slow Horses is the first in the series which I've been reading out of order (see also LL154 and LL156). Jackson Lamb's pack of restless misfits are the outcasts of MI5 (aka Regent's Park aka "Five"); internal rivalry and deception among the bosses at Five are as intense as their mandate to keep England safe from terrorists. River Cartwright, Roderick Ho, Louisa Guy, and Catherine Standish are some of the constants in the flux of slow horses. A small gang of ruthless racists have taken hostage a young Moslem, threatening to decapitate him on the internet.

By rights it's a matter for MI5 to handle, but Slough House is unwittingly dragged into it. Madly off in all directions comes to mind, but as individuals they somehow coalesce against the kidnappers and MI5's spiteful blame game. Old hands at the game like Five's Second Desk Diana Taverner always have a backup sacrificial goat. Hobden the right-wing journalist holds clues to inside information; Hassan the hostage surprises himself. There are a couple of breathless episodes in the middle of the story, let alone Lamb's final upper hand twist. Herron is word perfect ... every observation, every conversation, every turn of phrase is spot on; his structure of the story is apparently effortlessly consummate. Oh please let this series go on forever!

Tradecraft terms: a joe is a field agent; the achievers are the MI5 swat team; the Dogs are MI5 internal snoops; there are London rules and Moscow rules; Second Desk is second in command at MI5.

He resembled, someone had once remarked, Timothy Spall gone to seed, which left open the question of what Timothy Spall not gone to seed might look like, but painted an accurate picture nevertheless. (33)
For the next moments he was entirely inside his own head, and it was the scariest place he'd been. (81)
His fingers felt like thumbs, his thumbs like bananas. (174)
"Ho has the people skills of a natterjack toad, but he knows his way round the ether." (177)

"At my age you're either alone or dead. Either way, you get used to it." (83)

Hobden reacts:
"Can I help you?" 
"I'm supposed to be working? On this assignment?" 
He hated that upward inflection. How did the young let each other know when an answer was required? (28)

Discussion prompted by River:
"I thought our job involved preserving democracy," he said. "How does harassing a journalist help?" 
"Are you serious? It ought to be one of our key performance indicators." 
Lamb pronounced this phrase as if it had been on a form he'd lately binned. 
"This particular example, then." 
"Try not to think of him as a journalist. And more as a potential danger to the integrity of the body politic." 
"Is that what he is?" 
"I don't know. Anything in his rubbish suggest he might be?" 
"Well, he smokes. But that's not actually been upgraded to security threat." (34-5)

Out of shape:
Hobden had run. He didn't know who'd been shot, and didn't care. He'd run. How long since he'd done that? Back when he'd had urgent places to be, he'd have taken a taxi. So before long his lungs felt fit to burst, but still he'd pounded away, feet slapping pavement like wide flat fish, the juddering shock reverberating up to his teeth. Round one corner, then another. He'd been living in London's armpit for longer than he cared think about: still, he was lost within minutes. Didn't dare look back. Couldn't tell where his own footfalls stopped and another's might start; two loops of sound interlocking like Olympic circles. (184)

Bottom line:
If Moscow rules meant watch your back, London rules meant cover your arse. Moscow rules had been written on the streets, but London rules were devised in the corridors of Westminster, and the short version read: someone always pays. Make sure it isn't you. Nobody knew that better than Jackson Lamb. And nobody played it better than Di Taverner. (254)

Michael Redhill. Bellevue Square. Toronto: Doubleday Canada, 2017.
This is a deeply psychological mystery, not my favourite type of novel. Who ever heard of autoscopy? Jean Mason is your everyday sort of person with a husband and two kids who learns she has a doppelganger, an exact double. Katerina, a worker in a Kensington Market food stand, is a friend of this "Ingrid." Jean spends a lot of curious time looking for a glimpse of Ingrid, sitting and watching in the park called Bellevue Square. Perhaps Katerina will facilitate a meeting, but Katerina is suddenly shot dead. The story takes a turn when Jean is being treated in a locked psychiatric ward. From there on, we don't know what is real or what is hallucinated. Neither does Jean.

Clearly, enormous research and understanding went into this intriguing novel (a finalist for the Scotiabank Giller Prize). In trying to unravel Jean's mystery, the reader must cope with the underlying condition. "Bad wiring" in the brain seems to be at the root; perhaps a family gene, with a different manifestation in her sister Paula. But is it Jean or Ingrid who controls the narrative? How alike are they? Admittedly, some of the gibberish spouted by patients in the mental ward can become tiresome. If you like complex psychiatric diagnoses and philosophical exploration, go for it.

Evidence was mounting that nothing beyond someone else's overactive imagination was at work here. (60)
Pee, dog turds, and decomposing mice are only some of the fragrances of Bellevue Square in springtime. (65)
If this is death, it's confusing, but it doesn't hurt and it isn't frightening or sad. (131)
It's like a fuse is burning just steps behind me, reducing my lived life to ash. (178)

Ten years ago the only nightlife on Ossington was drive-by shootings. Now you can get Italian shoes and chocolate for wine tastings. (13)

Mother-in-law issues:
He was still good and angry when he came into the bedroom an hour later. "What the hell was that all about?" 
"It's like I'm not even in the room, like I'm invisible to her. She doesn't talk over me, she talks through me." 
"Keep your voice down. If she didn't notice you, how would she know how often you've missed Shabbat dinner?" 
"I'm sure she prefers it that way. Then it's the perfect family. No crazy mummy, the kids get fed—" 
"Jean, come on. You're the mother of her grandchildren. She loves you." 
"She wouldn't mind if I got hit by lightning." 
"I don't know what's happening with you right now," he said. (62)

Questioning reality:
There was no way to prove that everything I saw and experienced wasn't being performed for my benefit alone or that the things and people I "knew" blinked out of existence the moment I turned my back. The extension of this was that my entire life was a dream, that I was perhaps a character in a book or in someone else's dream, which was extremely frightening. (94)

Questioning death:
Death feels like a fairy tale you never get to hear the end of. It seems impossible that something of me will not survive it. What if I disappear almost completely, but almost? What might remain? Maybe a few flickerings of consciousness dimmed to their pilot lights but still viable, like sourdough starter, each bit irradiated with a tiny scrap of inner life. I recall Cullen's description of the transmission layer. There could be an ocean of raw consciousness waiting to get into the game. And while the saltings of what was once your semi-coherent self drift around inside this ocean, you have a long dream, and that's death. (236)

Karen Cleveland. Need to Know. USA: Ballantine Books, 2018 ("uncorrected proofs")
A catch-22 like no other! What a premise. Vivian is a counter-intelligence analyst for the CIA. She and husband Matt, a software engineer, struggle on their two salaries to support the needs of four young children in a modest home. It's very clear their children mean the world to them. Meanwhile at work, an algorithm Vivian had developed facilitates electronic hunting and hacking attempts to expose Russian spy "handlers" who want to recruit ("double") agents like her, among other targets. She finds Matt's photograph deep in one file and is petrified that the Russians will try to recruit him. We get some backstory on a great marriage.

To say anything else is spoiler territory. Events that follow are unpredictable and blaze along like a forest fire. Therefore the quotes/extracts had to be chosen with care. Cleveland has all the background to make it absolutely credible. Simply chilling and harrowing and amazing for a first novel; plan to stay up all night reading.

I have an unsettling sense that my whole life is slipping through my fingers and I'm powerless to stop it. (42)
And as I do, my gaze drifts to the corner of my desk, the picture of Matt and me on our wedding day, and I'm overcome with a strange sensation, a feeling that we dodged a bullet but that somehow, inexplicably, I'm bleeding. (73)
"Who is threatening my son?" I say again. (229)
This is someone standing in front of me with a gun, ready to kill me. (233)

His words ring in my head. If only you weren't so good at your job. (66)
I knew deep down it was the right thing to do. The only thing to do. (78)
My job was part of my identity. Was I ready to let it go? (177)

Proposal in airport security lineup:
He grabbed my other hand. "Vivian, I love you more than anything in the world. You make me happier than I ever thought possible, happier than I deserve." 
Tears sprang to my eyes. This was my future, the man I was going to spend the rest of my life with. 
"I want nothing more than to spend my life with you." Then he dropped one of my hands, reached into his pocket, pulled out a ring. Just a ring, no box; he must have placed it on the tray at the metal detector with his wallet and keys and I didn't even notice. He knelt down on one knee and held it out, his face so hopeful, so vulnerable. 
"Will you marry me?" 
"Of course," I whispered, and I saw the relief and happiness on his face as he slid it onto my finger. Applause erupted around us from a crowd I didn't know had gathered. (76-7)

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