I am currently reading my way through a long list of science fiction and fantasy titles. (http://www.npr.org/2011/08/07/138938145/science-fiction-and-fantasy-finalists if you are interested in the list).
London's Slough House is where the washed-up MI5 spies go to while away what's left of their failed careers. The "slow horses," as they’re called, have all disgraced themselves in some way to get relegated here. Maybe they messed up an op badly and can't be trusted anymore. Maybe they got in the way of an ambitious colleague and had the rug yanked out from under them. Maybe they just got too dependent on the bottle—not unusual in this line of work. One thing they all have in common, though, is they all want to be back in the action. And most of them would do anything to get there─even if it means having to collaborate with one another.
Now the slow horses have a chance at redemption. An old Cold War-era spy is found dead on a bus outside Oxford, far from his usual haunts. The despicable, irascible Jackson Lamb is convinced Dickie Bow was murdered. As the agents dig into their fallen comrade's circumstances, they uncover a shadowy tangle of ancient Cold War secrets that seem to lead back to a man named Alexander Popov, who is either a Soviet bogeyman or the most dangerous man in the world. How many more people will have to die to keep those secrets buried?
The denizens of Slough House are at it again—those slow horses, the disgraced spies, are trying to be relevant and get in on the Intelligence Service action. You’ve gotta love the repulsive head of Slough House, Jackson Lamb, who goes to great lengths to make himself look like a homeless guy and to torment all those under his supervision. Likewise, it’s hard not to be fond of River Cartwright, whose grandfather was a successful spy with MI5 back in the day—when River needs encouragement, he goes to visit the old man and listen to his war stories, gleaning hints to help him in his current predicament. Maybe you don’t love the other characters (or maybe you do), but they are entertaining and have their own back stories of banishment to Slough House. I must admit a soft spot for Roderick Ho, the stereotypical Anglo-Asian computer geek who can’t figure out why he is in the dog house. Turns out, he did nothing exactly wrong, but he is obnoxious and no one wants to work with him despite his virtuoso skills as a computer nerd.
Lamb isn’t one to let his slow horses loose in the field very often and they always manage to get into trouble when he does. Cartwright is probably the sharpest of them (except maybe the new guy with the gambling problem) and he still manages to get himself into situations where that “how to withstand torture” training comes in useful.
This book and its predecessor, Slow Horses, are extremely entertaining and perfect for those who enjoy the spy novel. References to the Cold War with the Soviet Union are especially à propos during these days of Russian and Ukrainian turmoil and posturing by both Putin and the United States, two former superpowers both struggling to retain their relevance in the 21st century.