The Blurb On The Back:
Tom Bettany is working at a meat processing plant in France hen he gets a voice mail from an Englishwoman he doesn’t know telling him that his estranged 26-year-old son is dead – Liam Bettany had a fatal fall from his London balcony.
Now for the first time since he cut all ties years ago, Bettany returns home to London to find out the truth about his son’s death. Maybe it’s the guilt he feels about losing touch with Liam that’s gnawing at him, or maybe he’s actually put his finger on a labyrinthine plot, but either way he’ll get to the bottom of the tragedy, no matter whose feathers he has to ruffle. But more than a few people are interested to hear Bettany is back in town, from incarcerated mob bosses to those in the highest echelons of MI5. He might have thought he’d left it all behind when he first skipped town, but nobody ever really walks away.
The Review (Cut For Spoilers):
Tom Bettany is little more than a drifter who works in a meat processing facility in France, sharing digs with another shift worker and keeping himself to himself. He’s lived that way for several years, ever since the death of his wife and his subsequent estrangement from his son, Liam.
But then Tom gets a phone call from England: Liam has died. The police believe that he accidentally fell off the balcony of his flat in London while high on a new type of cannabis called muskrat but Tom isn’t so sure. As a former MI5 undercover agent who was responsible for putting 2 arms dealers in prison – dealers who have violent plans for Bettany should he ever resurface – Tom knows that it’s dangerous to be in London but something about Liam’s death doesn’t seem right.
With the help of Liam’s friend, Felicity ‘Flea’ Pointer, he sets about trying to find out what happens, even if that means investigating Liam and Flea’s boss – enigmatic computer game developer Vincent Driscoll – and drawing the attention of his former boss, MI5 First Chair Dame Ingrid Tearney who brings in psychologist J. K. Coe to help her …
Mick Herron’s excellent standalone spy thriller includes characters from the SLOUGH HOUSE SERIES, offering background on Coe and featuring Ingrid Tearney and Sam Chapman. The plot twists and turns neatly with Herron setting up strands and returning to them in unexpected ways and there’s a sense of sadness and regret going through the book, together a bleak cynicism such that the open ending doesn’t leave the reader with much reassurance or hope.
Bettany is a fascinating antagonist – unable to ever really shake off his undercover identity as Martin Boyd, which in turn damaged his relationship with his wife and son, he’s a shadow of a person now, unable and unwilling to get close to anyone, even in friendship. What drives this story is his motivation in finding out what happened to Liam, which is his way of trying to make things up to him. He’s determined and completely ruthless, a violent man who has no issue in giving in to his violent impulses when he needs to, he’s also clever and constantly studying the angles. I enjoyed how Herron makes that both a strength and a weakness and it very much fits into the paranoia and suspicion that permeates the story so that even the reader isn’t sure exactly what’s going on (something that’s exacerbated by his decision to have some sections from the point of view of other characters without making clear the links between them, e.g. the drug dealers Marten and Oskar).
For SLOUGH HOUSE fans there is some great background on J K Coe here, which goes in some way to explain how he became the way he is in that series. I also enjoyed the role that Ingrid Tearney plays here with Herron showing how she kept her role as First Chair and giving her a ruthless streak that’s truly chilling. What really comes through the book is how being in the security services can damage you whether that’s leaving you with emotional or mental health issues or corrupting your ethics and behaviour.
The plot really twists and turns and I was never quite sure where Herron was going to take it, which I loved. If I had one complaint about the book it’s that I wanted more of Vincent Driscoll who I felt was a little underdeveloped, especially in contrast to his driver Boo Berryman, although I will say that it does work with the character’s emotional distance from those around him and his enigmatic reputation.
There’s a real sense of sadness and regret that runs through the book, e.g. Flea’s re-evaluating her friendship with Liam and Bettany considering the effect his job had on his home life. Bettany also has a sense of fatalism that left me with a developing sense of dread and worked particularly well with the open ending, which left me fearing the worst.
All in all, I am a big fan of Herron’s work anyway and was completely gripped by this book from start to finish. You don’t have to be familiar with the SLOUGH HOUSE SERIES in order to enjoy this book but I think that you will get more from it if you do because of the appearance of characters from that series.