It’s the Jackson Lamb books that are getting displays in bookstores at the moment, as Spook Street has just come out in paperback. And it is a great series, doing something different with the spy genre, undercutting any notions of James Bond or even Le Carre. The only character who can see round the corners and through the corkscrew twists of the latest internal machinations is Jackson Lamb himself. The rest of his spooks, flawed and failing, stumble through the action with such good intent and lack of understanding that it sometimes gets them killed. Slough House isn’t kind to its denizens.
And Mick Herron isn’t kind to Zoë Boehm either. She is the heroine, or anti-heroine, of her own series of books, of which Smoke and Whispers is the last. It starts with a body, that could be Zoë’s, floating down the Tyne. The body has Zoë’s belongings and Zoë’s clothes, and it’s a testament to the strength of the preceding books that the reader can both fully believe that yes, Zoë could have ended up face down in a river, and yet not want that to be the case. It would be an unsurprising end, but not a fitting one.
Zoë Boehm is an independent detective, based in Oxford. You’d think that Morse had Oxford covered, but Zoë’s city is not one in which a Jaguar could stay safely parked. Over the several books, her own car gets stolen and torched by an ex-policeman, she gets beaten up in Jericho and nearly drowned in the canal (and now I’m wondering if that was foreshadowing). Her Oxford is one in which the nice jeweller’s is fencing stolen goods, and the nice hotel is the starting location of a clever woman’s campaign to present herself as an abused wife before knifing her husband in the heart. No quadrangles here.
Unusually for me, I read the first book in the series and then I’ve listened to the rest. I’m listening to Smoke and Whispers at the moment and I’ve been trying to work out what makes Mick Herron such a good writer. So far, I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s the fact that every sentence is crafted. There’s no makeweight in a Mick Herron sentence, each word lands with direct authorial intent. One paragraph can contain more observation than lesser writers display in entire novels.
And he’s great at writing female characters. Zoë is a detective first and foremost. She doesn’t get home at the end of the day and start maundering about the size of her thighs or the fact that she hasn’t got a boyfriend, in order to signal to the reader that she’s also a real, relatable woman. She is not primarily defined by her physical characteristics or what she wears: Zoë just puts her jeans on, they don’t cling enticingly to long, elegant legs that are tanned and toned from her early morning runs. Her black jeans, red top and black leather jacket may be identifiably hers but about all they say is she doesn’t pay enough attention to bother dressing to impress. She also doesn’t have a phone full of specifically skilled, male mates who can help her out when a case gets difficult. It is, frankly, a relief to read a female character who is allowed to get on with her job without also having to perform being a woman at the same time.
So far, most of the investigating in Smoke and Mirrors is being done by Sarah Tucker, someone whose life Zoë saved in the first book in the series (Down Cemetery Road) and who is now her only friend. Sarah has identified the body found in the Tyne as Zoë, but that’s based more on the conclusive leather jacket than on recognition. Something isn’t stacking up for Sarah. Maybe at first it was just unwillingness to believe that her friend is dead, but she’s now beginning to think that an old case caught up with Zoë and might be reaching out to entangle Sarah herself as well…
In Down Cemetery Road, Zoë didn’t get introduced until the endgame. I’m hoping that’s what happens here too, and maybe Sarah saves her. Then again, maybe Mick Herron isn’t going to be kind to his readers, either.