Espionage fiction fans will know the name Mick Herron from his popular English spy series set around Slough House which started with Slow Horses. That series has now stretched to eight books and spawned a TV series with Gary Oldman (who also, ironically, played Le Carré’s primary spy George Smiley a few years back) taking on the lead role of Jackson Lamb. Eight books in can be a little daunting for some readers so Herron takes a breath in his latest book The Secret Hours to deliver a satisfyingly twisty stand-alone spy novel set very firmly in his Slough House continuity.
The action in The Secret Hours (at least action for the purposes of a bureaucracy-driven secret service) revolves around a government investigation into the Service called Metronome. Metronome was set up two years before by a fairly recognisable shambolic Prime Minster, who got on the wrong side of the Service when he was foreign Minister and wanted a little revenge. Metronome was nobbled from the start but two years on, the two public servants seconded to run it are still going through the motions. That is until an old, classified file, from an operation in Berlin in 1994, mysteriously falls into their hands and the inquiry finds new life. But before all of that there is real action – a night-time raid and an old spy on the run – and some political manoeuvring as the head of the Service tries to stop the government selling off its vetting function to a corporate entity.
A couple of times in the novel Herron name checks the master of the British spy novel John Le Carré. And while there is no need to anoint an heir to Le Carré or go too far with comparisons, Herron himself is definitely playing in the same sandpit. But he does it with his own dry wit and observational satire – being both intrigued by the craft of spying while skewering the public service culture in which it does not necessarily easily rest. He also manages in The Secret Hours to link some shenanigans in a just post-Cold War Berlin with some very modern issues for the security services as their relevance becomes less visible and their budgets are squeezed.
Overall, The Secret Hours is a top shelf spy novel full of engaging characters and driven by a number of intriguing mysteries which are effortlessly brought together in a twisty denouement. For lovers of spy fiction this is a great stand alone to sink their teeth into. For Slough House fans this is an expansion of the world that Herron has built with plenty of Easter eggs for that series, and, ultimately, a fascinating slice of backstory.