I’m always a bit surprised to look back at the end of the year and see how much scribbling I’ve done. What follows is my own “best of” list. Thanks for reading, thanks for listening…
for The Nation
DTM commentary about music
Only one substantial essay on crime fiction, but it’s pretty good if I do say so myself
Shorter, quicker, fun things
Bonus: Mark Stryker on DTM
2021 was also the year I discovered Mick Herron, who is now in my pantheon, especially for his Slough House series, although his other books are good too.
Almost every entry in the series starts on the slow side: A few years ago I picked up Dead Lions and put it down again after not getting very far. Perhaps the tone is also confusing for a newbie, for during that false start I didn’t realize that Herron’s style was essentially playful, if not comic. At any rate, a quarter of the way through each novel, a key turns in the lock, and the books become exciting to the point of breathlessness.
There is a “hero,” the unlikeable Jackson Lamb, but most of the time we are with a collection of misfits, the “slow horses,” a group of demoted British espionage agents who operate out of Slough House. Each character is wonderful, and the way they interact with each other is even more wonderful.
The comic touches recall Len Deighton, but Herron’s true master is John Le Carré.
In early Le Carré, the author was against Russia in conventional Cold War fashion. The real world traitor Kim Philby was the direct inspiration for Le Carré’s greatest book, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, and George Smiley’s arch enemy was the Russian super spy Karla. There is a certain amount of investigation into the British social order, but those questions are posed with a light touch. We love George Smiley, and there’s nobody more Establishment than Smiley.
In time — especially after the fall of the Berlin wall — Le Carré realized that the true enemy might come from within the ranks of his Establishment, and the books took on a genuinely revolutionary cast, almost as if Noam Chomsky were writing thriller fiction.
Herron takes up the anti-Establishment theme of Le Carré’s later years with far more pizzaz. Almost all the action concerns infighting within the British Government, strongly recalling the bureaucratic chaos from the great ITV series The Sandbaggers written by Ian Mackintosh, although Mackintosh’s politics remain essentially conservative. Herron is a leftist — and has so much fun being a leftist!
I just adore these books. True kudos to a contemporary master.
There’s a lot to look forward to in 2022. If you haven’t yet, please take just over a minute to watch “The More it Changes, the More it Stays the Same.”