Bad Actors by Mick Herron

The Blurb On The Back:

In MI5 a scandal is brewing and there are bad actors everywhere.

A key member of a Downing Street think tank has disappeared without trace.  Claude Wheelan, one-time First Desk of MI5’s Regent’s Park, is tasked with tracking her down.  But the trail leads straight back to Regent’s Park HQ itself, with its chief, Diana Taverner, as prime suspect.  Meanwhile her Russian counterpart has unexpectedly shown up in London but has slipped under MI5’s radar.

Over at Slough House, the home for demoted and embittered spies, the slow horses are doing what they do best: adding a little bit of chaos to an already unstable situation.

In a world where lying, cheating and back-stabbing are the norm, bad actors are bending the rules for their own gain.  If the slow horses want to change the script, they’ll need to get their own act together before the final curtain.  

You can order BAD ACTORS by Mick Herron from Amazon USA, Amazon UK, Waterstone’s or Bookshop.org UK.  I earn commission on any purchases made through these links.

The Review (Cut For Spoilers):

It’s 6 months after SLOUGH HOUSE.

River Cartwright’s presence is missed in Slough House, his desk taken by Ashley Khan (a bit player in SLOUGH HOUSE who got her arm broken by Jackson Lamb and has been made a slow horse in punishment).  Khan, the daughter of parents with high aspirations, is furious that her promising career has been curtailed and like every new arrival to Slough House, is plotting her return back to Regent’s Park while also running a personal vendetta against Lamb himself.

Shirley Dander’s drug use and anger issues have caught up with her and as a result of Catherine’s concerns over all the recent team losses, has been sent to the San (a Service facility for those with rehabilitation and mental illness needs).  Needless to say, she is not happy to be forced into a period of self-reflection and even less impressed by the detox.  Lech Wicinski is still recovering mentally and physically from a bout of COVID during the lock-down that was so bad, he only survived because hapless milkman John Bachelor (who was staying with him for a new nights) cared for him.  Not that he’s so grateful that he’s prepared to let the homeless Bachelor stay with him again.

Meanwhile Claude Wheelan (the former First Desk who was ousted by Diana Taverner at the end of LONDON RULES) is summoned back from a somewhat dull retirement by Oliver Nash (head of the Limitations Committee).  Dr Sophie de Greer (a Swiss national “super forecaster” and special adviser to Downing Street) has gone missing and Anthony Sparrow (the Prime Minister’s Svengali lead adviser who’s taken to pulling all the strings in Whitehall) thinks that MI5 is responsible.  Nash believes that Wheelan can find her because Sparrow suspects that Taverner used a top secret protocol called Waterproof to disappear her and Wheelan is one of the few people who know who it worked and where to look.  

Keen to get revenge on Taverner, Wheeler is nevertheless wary of getting caught in the middle of a political power play.  He recognises the sensitivities of the situation and the need to be careful around operators as ruthless and brutal as Sparrow and Taverner and the last thing he needs is the slow horses messing everything up for him …

The 8th in Mick Herron’s SLOUGH HOUSE SERIES uses a missing person case to incorporate a savage commentary on UK politics.  Like SLOUGH HOUSE there’s a strong set-up feel with Herron manoeuvring characters and motivation for Book 9 but Wheelan’s return, Taverner’s tribulations and Shirley’s rage issues are all a lot of fun, I enjoyed seeing John Bachelor from the novellas and there are some hilarious lines such that I can’t wait for Book 9.

The first thing I’m going to say is that you need to read the preceding books in this series in order to get the most out of this one.  Claude Wheelan (last seen in LONDON RULES) has a prominent return in this book while John Bachelor (from the side novellas THE LIST, THE DROP and THE CATCH) is featured due to his history with Lech Wicinski while Diana Taverner is also dealing with the fall out of her deal with Peter Judd from SLOUGH HOUSE.  These previous books all feed into what happens here so understanding the history will help you to understand the interactions.

The main plot line is fairly simple.  Anthony Sparrow (the Prime Minister’s main adviser) wants to use Sophie de Greer’s disappearance to air some of MI5’s dirtiest secrets and thereby bring it under his control.  Taverner is more focused on the arrival in the UK of Russia’s First Desk Vassily Rasnakov and wants to find out what he’s up to.  Wheeler knows he’s stuck between two competing agendas but still wants to get involved, partly out of boredom but also because he is not above getting some revenge on Taverner for her role in ousting him.  Herron makes the most out of his theme of people being bad actors because everyone here has their own agenda and their own little game in play and of course, Slough House gets drawn into the mix when one of those games goes awry.

There is a lot of set up going here.  We have new character Ashley Khan who is particularly bitter about her move to the slow horses and although there’s a lot of promise in her desire to get revenge on Jackson Lamb, she does fade out after the first quarter and doesn’t pay much of a role until the final few chapters.  There’s also the continuing fall out of Taverner realising how bad a deal she made with Peter Judd and with Herron hinting that Wheelan may be hanging around, there’s some intriguing possibilities with that storyline.  Into this, Herron throws a new storyline involving Rasnakov and his machinations, which Lamb and Taverner are both clearly worried about.

Of the original slow horses, there’s a particular focus on Shirley who is forced into rehab for her drug issues.  I’ve always liked Shirley and Herron uses the opportunity to force her into some begrudging introspection (although Shirley being Shirley, she’s damned if she’s going to admit to any problems).  Her team up with Wheelan holds intriguing possibilities for book 9 and given Wheelan’s misreading of the situation, a lot of comic potential.  

Lech also gets more of a role here as he continues to come to terms with the scars on his face but is also dealing with the ramifications of having had COVID.  I appreciated his conflicted emotions over how Bachelor basically kept him alive but at the same time has zero intention of letting Bachelor hold that over him. Having read all the side novellas, I was pleased to see Bachelor turn up in the main event and he remains a pitiful sad sack who is all too aware of his own foibles but his actions in the last quarter of the book make absolute sense and are completely true to his character and I liked the fact that Lamb knows exactly who he is and what he’ll do.

As for Lamb himself, there’s a hint of a resolution to his ill health story and he’s clearly got the bit between his teeth with Rasnakov such that you get a sense of the kind of spook he was when the Iron Curtain was still in place.  The dismissive way he deals with Khan leads to some funny moments but much of the humour comes from Roddy who is auditioning potential candidates to accompany him to Comic Con and it goes about as well as you’d expect.  I’m a bit torn about the Roddy scenes because they are funny but of all the characters in the book, he doesn’t have much depth to him and I do kinda wish he was humanised a bit more (but that is a minor complaint).  Catherine, meanwhile, is worried about the losses the team have taken recently and really just doesn’t want to lose anyone else while Louisa is craving a bit of excitement.

I did find the beginning of the book to be a little leisurely but Herron’s really good at pacing and knows how to use his set piece scenes.  There are a number of action scenes in the book, which work really well and I would love to read a side novella set among the inhabitants of the San should Herron ever decide to write one.

I read a special edition of the book, which has Herron’s thoughts on the Apple TV series released in 2022 and does give you an additional perspective on the book.  Given the way Herron ends BAD ACTORS, I get the feeling that there are going to be some pretty major changes in book 9 and I really can’t wait to read it.  

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