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10 May 2022

#Review - Bad Actors by Mick Herron

Bad Actors (Slough House, 8)
Mick Herron
Baskerville, 12 May 2022
Available as: HB, 352pp, e, audio
Source: Advance copy
ISBN(HB): 9781529378702

I'm grateful to the publisher for an advance copy of Bad Actors to consider for review.

Bad Actors is the lates novel in the Slough House series, focussing on the spooks (the 'slow horses') that MI5 left behind. Left behind in a decaying, seedy, London office, to be overseen by the decaying, seedy Jackson Lamb. Eight novels in (plus a few novellas) this series is still firing on cylinders - and delivering some surprises.

Slough House has recently been brought to TV (rather splendidly, I think) and in his credits in this book Herron makes clear that the title isn't directed at the actors in the series. It's true that it has been trailed in previous books, and it is also a clever pun on the overlap between 'bad', that is, malign figures - several of whom feature here - and more straightforward hopeless losers and misfits - who also appear - who are simply 'bad' at performing their roles. Not all of the latter are Slow Horses. 

I think there is a bit more to it than that, though. I do wonder whether the adaptation of the series as drama has influenced this book. In Bad Actors, Herron seems to be reflecting the drama in a running series of theatrical metaphors. For example, ''No, really, don't. Let's just workshop it, shall we?' during a meeting, or 'the street dazzle of Soho - the neon lights and mirrored windows'. A junior spook who 'wasn’t quite Oscar material' nevertheless 'had her moments' while one of the characters, Nash, is 'stepping into noir, dimming everything to a monochrome rainbow'. There are many more examples, all contributing to a sense of a stage waiting, of the streets of London as an arena, a performance space. And the sections in the book reflect this, dividing the story into 'Acts' (we actually get Act 2 first, something that itself contributes to the atmosphere at the start). 

This sort of leitmotiv is very much in keeping with the earlier books, which I think each tend have a particular language or framing in a similar way. Of course the books in this series are always alive to the context and setting of a crumbling UK in the cold winds of the 21st century (indeed, Slough House itself could be the overarching metaphor for this) but, perhaps, they draw attention to it in different ways. Here, the theatricality perhaps emphasises that the current crop of 'bad actors' (perhaps in both senses) in Westminster and Whitehall are also, largely, creations, acts in fact. 

But Herron also delights in a less subtle characterisation - for example, giving us a failing Prime Minister whose 'sole qualification for the job had been the widespread expectation that he'd achieve it. Having done so, he was clearly dumbstruck by the demands of office: the pay cut, the long hours, the pandemic, and the shocking degree of accountability involved. For a man who'd made a vocation out of avoidance of responsibility, this last was an ugly blow...' as well as unscrupulous unelected advisers, lurking in the shadows to reshape the hapless nation over which they exercise control. 'The PM's enforcer, Sparrow wasn't as high profile as his predecessors had been - it would have been challenging to maintain that level of unpopularity without barbecuing an infant on live television - but those in the know recognised him as a home-grown Napoleon: nasty, British and short.')

One of this doleful band - a 'superforecaster' attached to No 10, no less - has gone missing. Her boss, the Sparrow referred to above, is perturbed, and Slough House may be a convenient scapegoat. A retired spook is reactivated to investigate, and in a story perhaps showing more crossover than usual between the despairing landings of Slough House and the gleaming corridors of Regent's Park, a host of actors, good and bad, seek to take advantage of the situation; or simply to survive. So Louisa, Lech, Roddy and the rest carry their spears (in Roddy's case, a broken broom) onto the stage, pursued by a Lamb. But we also see Regent's Park on high alert as a foreign spy appears, unheralded, on their radar, with a special message for the First Desk, Diana Taverner. At the same time, she is fighting a battle to prevent her empire being absorbed into the nebulous world of the PM's Special Adviser. 

It's a very full, fast-moving and exciting story (as ever) plumbing deep into the minds and motivations of the cast, but often illustrating them as much through petty office politics as through major plot developments; the consequences of pinching a colleague's lunch from the fridge, for example, or of catching somebody out on a personal Zoom call. But make no mistake that the stakes are high. The events of Slough House, the previous book, are still very much with us (especially a particular absence) and various members of the team cope with their guilt, or don't, about that: that straight-into-Act 2  structure of the book allowing the hangover from Slough House to blur with their recollections of an Act 1 which of course we haven't read, all creating a truly disorienting effect. What happened in Wimbledon? Should we know? Why is there shattered plastic all over Roddy's floor? What has Shirley done now? (And where has she gone?) Combined with the fallout from the missing adviser, there seems a distinct possibility here that somebody in Slough House really has stepped out of line - or at least that Lamb may not be able to prove that they haven't. 

It's a very disquieting opening, setting up a book full of subtly shifting (or undeclared) loyalties (watch Slough House's new recruit, and the machinations of the straw men on the fringes of the Park) which nest slightly with the many enjoyable contrasts and juxtapositions. There is both sophisticated verbal fencing between senior officials ('...Regents Park string pullers knew to tread carefully around Diana. String pullers carry weight, but Diana carried scissors') and, of course, Lamb's crude put-downs. There is Roddy's absurd inner monologue and hapless pantomime shadow combat with a broomstick, but also some utterly serious violence. There is the fatuous and solipsistic world of the politicians and advisers where everything is about message and position and we don't want to hear from experts ('lying in office was no longer a career-threatening felony; the consequence of misleading Parliament was nowadays a lap of honour') and, outside in the cold, the chilling realpolitik and tradecraft of the even badder actors. 

Pretty soon, realities will begin to show through the waffle and piffle...

In short this is a terrific addition to the Slough House series, as sharp and engaged as ever. (And oh, there are scenes here that I can't wait to see on the screen, though some of them may be very tricky to translate...)

For more information about Bad Actors, see the publisher's website here.

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