Dead Lions won the prestigious CWA Gold Dagger as best crime fiction novel of 2013. It is the second book in the River Cartwright series following on from Slow Horses. The central theme of these books is that in modern Britain it is too difficult to sack incompetent spies as they probably would take the government to an employment tribunal. So those that screw up, for example by leaving a top secret disk on a tube train, are shuffled off to Slough House where they are known as “slow horses”, a deliberate pathetic pun. There they are given boring clerical tasks such as counting paperclips in the hope they will give in their notice. But many are keen to get back into the field, complete a mission successfully and hopefully revive their failed careers.
A broadsheet’s Beautiful Homes column had lately informed her that a little imagination and a small amount of cash could transform even the tiniest apartment into a compact, space efficient dream-dwelling. Unfortunately, that “small amount” was large enough that if she ever laid her hands on it, she’d have moved somewhere bigger instead. As ever damp washing was tonight’s motif.
An old Cold War-era minor MI5 operative Dickie Bow is found dead on a bus outside Oxford. The boss of Slough House the overweight irascible Jackson Lamb believes Bow has been murdered and begins an investigation. Meanwhile James Webb, who comes from the Regent’s Park HQ of MI5, recruits Min Harper and Louisa Guy, slow horses and lovers to make contact in a strictly hush hush operation with Russian billionaire oligarch Arkady Pashkin, a potential future occupant of the Kremlin.
These two threads of a complex plot in which nothing is quite as it seems will come together in a thrilling climax. Is Dead Lions a rather clever and brilliant parody of Le Carre’s Smiley novels? There is certainly a lot of internal skulduggery and competition both at MI5 HQ and within Slough House, but it is wittily updated to the modern era. Any British spy novel is going to be compared with the work of John Le Carre, and this one compares favourably. The characters especially Jackson Lamb, the determined Louisa Guy, and IT man Roderick Ho are well drawn and sympathetic in their fashion; the plot is complex full of Russians and spooks; and modern England from chocolate box villages to crowded London’s unfortunate architectural landmarks are painted with accuracy and subtle humour. I can recommend Dead Lions as an amusing read with a plot full of intrigue, red herrings and misdirections.