Author Mick Herron… considered to be the shrewdest satirical commentator in Britain today. Photo: M Buck
Author Tim Ayliffe… “everything I write has happened, will happen or could happen.”
Book reviewer ANNA CREER writes of two thrillers that take old characters into new adventures.
BRITISH writer Mick Herron is hailed by many as John le Carre’s successor and by others as the new Anthony Trollope, considering him the shrewdest satirical commentator in Britain today.
Herron is currently riding a well-deserved wave of success. Already two of his Slough House spy stories are Apple TV series, with a talented cast including Gary Oldman and Kristin Scott Thomas.
Herron’s spies are MI5 failures, the Slow Horses, condemned forever to repetitive tasks of “unfulfilment” and boredom in Slough House, “to look back in disappointment and stare round in dismay” as they live out the aftermath of their professional errors.
There are eight Slough House thrillers, but Herron’s latest, “The Secret Hours”, breaks with his established pattern because it’s a prequel, an origin story of some of his most memorable characters.
“The Secret Hours” begins with both a remarkable first sentence, “The worst smell in the world is dead badger” and a tense remorseless pursuit of a retired spook, Max Janacek, through the Devon countryside. Only at the end does the reader understand why.
Meanwhile in Whitehall, the outgoing prime minister in a fit of pique has decided to take his revenge on the Park (the headquarters of the intelligence service) for cramping his style when foreign secretary, by instigating an inquiry called Monochrome. Herron doesn’t name the prime minister but, as he had taken a minibreak at Peppa Pig World, he doesn’t need to.
Junior officers at the Park believed at the time that in “any contest between its top banana called First Desk (the formidable Diana Taverner) and the PM, it was the latter who’d be queuing at the dentist’s afterwards, carrying his teeth in a sodden handkerchief”.
Two years into their inquiry, the Monochrome committee has investigated little because they don’t have access to the Park’s archives.
Their remit states that they have to request specific files. First Desk tells her assistant: ”We keep records for our own devices, not to provide a ready-made history for anyone who comes looking.
“Between the work names and the coded locations this Mononchrome outfit’ll be lucky to piece together who did the coffee run yesterday, let alone who shagged who in a safe house in 1987”.
Then one day, the Otis File mysteriously appears in the shopping trolley of Malcolm Kyle, deputy chair of Monochrome. The file documents an operation in a recently reunified Berlin in 1994 and suddenly the committee has something to investigate and a star witness voluntarily giving evidence.
“The Secret Hours” is marketed as a standalone novel but, to understand all the nuances, you should go back to the beginning of Herron’s remarkable ongoing story and “Slow Horses”. You won’t regret it.
“KILLER Traitor Spy” is Australian Tim Ayliffe’s fourth thriller featuring investigative journalist, John Bailey.
Ayliffe, a journalist himself for more than 20 years, is the managing editor of Television and Video for ABC News. He has said that he created John Bailey’s world “so that I can explore real-world issues in a way that readers can be informed and entertained”, claiming that “everything I write has happened, will happen or could happen”.
This approach to his plot-driven thrillers has resulted in considerable success, including plans for a TV series by CJZ productions, Australia’s largest independently owned production company.
“Killer Traitor Spy”, which explores known aspects of Russia’s covert attacks on the west, begins with an attempt on the life of a Russian expat, Dimityry Lebedev, resulting in the poisoning of a sex-worker, Scarlett Merriman, with a Soviet nerve agent.
Lebedev had been negotiating to disclose information about a major intelligence breach in Canberra but now he’s disappeared.
The next day, Lebedev’s closest friend and Kremlin critic, Mikhail Volkov, dies suddenly of a heart attack while jogging and another, Leonid Oblonsky, is found murdered in Hyde Park.
Bailey is a friend of Scarlett and begins questioning how and why she was poisoned but it’s a call for help from a CIA agent, Ronnie Johnson, that leads his investigation into dangerous territory. Johnson tells him: “We’re not that different, y’know. Intelligence officers and journalists. We both chase the truth. Investigate. We just do things… differently”.
Their investigation inevitably brings them to Canberra in search of a traitor hidden within the government, resulting in a violent confrontation in the leafy, quiet suburb of Yarralumla.
Tense and action packed, “Killer Traitor Spy” is a timely reminder of the danger of traitors hiding in plain sight.
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