The worst smell in the world is dead badger – the opening words of The Secret Hours were spoken by my brother David as we were walking one of Devon’s green lanes. Thankfully I was able to take his word for it, as we encountered no badger corpses that day. But he had given me […]
Bad Actors is part of Mick Herron’s Slough House series. The series title is a play on “slow horses,” the pejorative given to MI5 agents who’ve screwed up royally, the bad news bears of spying. A recent New Yorker profile of Herron by Jill Lepore presents the question in the headline, “Is Mick Herron the Best Spy Novelist of His Generation?” We answer “yes!" Herron writes taught, well-paced books that can make you laugh as quickly one moment and bite your nails to the quick another moment as you discover what happens next.
“Confirms Mick Herron as the best spy novelist now working.”—NPR's Fresh Air
Now an Apple TV+ series starring Gary Oldman and Kristin Scott Thomas.
In London's MI5 headquarters a scandal is brewing that could disgrace the entire intelligence community. The Downing Street superforecaster—a specialist who advises the Prime Minister's office on how policy is likely to be received by the electorate—has disappeared without a trace. Claude Whelan, who was once head of MI5, has been tasked with tracking her down.
But the trail leads him straight back to Regent's Park itself, with First Desk Diana Taverner as chief suspect. Has Taverner overplayed her hand at last? Meanwhile, her Russian counterpart, Moscow intelligence's First Desk, has cheekily showed up in London and shaken off his escort. Are the two unfortunate events connected?
Over at Slough House, where Jackson Lamb presides over some of MI5's most embittered demoted agents, the slow horses are doing what they do best, and adding a little bit of chaos to an already unstable situation . . .
There are bad actors everywhere, and they usually get their comeuppance before the credits roll. But politics is a dirty business, and in a world where lying, cheating and backstabbing are the norm, sometimes the good guys can find themselves outgunned.
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The woods were lovely, dark, and deep, and full of noisy bastards. From his foxhole Sparrow could hear the grunting and thrashing of combat, of bodies crashing through foliage. Some things breaking were branches, and others might be bones. Sound travelled more cleanly in the countryside. This might not be true but it was interesting, which mattered more. Sound travelled more cleanly, so what he was hearing could include the fracturing of legs and fingers as well as splintering twigs. His foxhole wasn’t constructed; was simply a ditch in which he’d secreted himself while the opening sallies played out. The initial clash of armies was where you lost your cannon fodder. Once the dumb meat had been carted from the field, war passed into the hands of the thinkers.
Something clattered overhead, in a tree’s topmost branches. Only a bird. Meanwhile, battle continued: two forces of roughly equal size, blatant weaponry outlawed but anything that came to hand regarded as fair use. Sticks and stones for instance—and any experienced foot soldier had a favourite stick, a favourite stone, within easy reach when the starting whistle blew. Time, date, place, courtesy of social media. The old days, when you just rocked up to a car park near the stadium a few hours before kick-off, all of that was buried in history books and Channel 5 documentaries. Sparrow himself had been a toddler. Interesting, though: people thought, because they didn’t see football fans rucking in public anymore, that it didn’t happen. Just knowing that much about human nature was like having a big shiny key.
It was an education in itself, exploring the depths of other people’s ignorance and gullibility.
Some shouting in the near distance now. Nothing as coherent as words: just the familiar Esperanto of grunt and injury, the outward expression of a hatred that was absolutely pure and totally impersonal. Amateur violence signalled national character. Just as the French variety, with its short jabs and rabbit punches, seemed as crabbed and hunched as French handwriting, so English violence had the hallmarks of a ransom note: capital-lettered and often misspelt, but getting the message across. As for Italians—today’s opponents—they rucked the way they sang, their brawling round and bold and big-voiced, and if not for a relatively small turnout, they’d wind up kings of the woods today. Benito—the new Benito, whose predecessor had interestingly withdrawn from public view—would have led his troops away rejoicing. But that didn’t, from what Sparrow had seen so far, look likely.
For his own part, his interest was clinical. Untethered to any football team, he was nevertheless fascinated by the loyalties they inspired, regardless of history, abilities and triumphs, or lack thereof. By the Till I Die tattoos supporters sported. This was a self-fulfilling promise, one that couldn’t be reneged on without expensive laser treatment, and demonstrated the kind of drive that pre-empted second thoughts. And once you got a handle on it, you could steer it in any direction you chose. Aim it at a rival set of fans or . . . elsewhere.
From deep among the trees Sparrow could feel an approaching beat, not as stealthy as it thought it was, and underneath that a more primal rhythm, one close to Sparrow’s heart. In the breast pocket of his camo-gilet, in fact: the thrumming of his mobile phone.
With the unhurried ease of a gunslinger he slipped it free of his pocket. “You pick your moments.”
The crashing came nearer; the sound of a large, urban type imagining it was possible to be silent in a wood.
“Oh, you know. Day off. I like to get close to nature.”
Excuse him a moment, he thought but did not say, and instead of listening to whatever his caller said next, fastened the phone into a Velcro-secured sheath at shoulder level, so he could speak and be heard and mostly hear, a long-established set of priorities. That done, he settled into a crouch and wrapped both hands round the stubby branch from which he had stripped all unnecessary twigs and leaves.
“Okay, this is the usual daily bullshit, nothing to worry about. Just because there’s a problem doesn’t mean we need a solution. We simply reframe the narrative. Hang on a sec.”
A figure crashed into Sparrow’s clearing and halted, scanning the terrain. Being of average height he was easily four inches taller than Sparrow, an advantage in most hostile situations except those where both parties have testicles but only one is wielding a club. Sparrow’s caught the newcomer sweetly in the crutch. He made a noise like a baby seal and collapsed in a heap.
“Yes, or dispense with the narrative altogether. This time tomorrow it’s yesterday’s news . . . No, I’m fine. Just doing some stretches.”
While his caller launched into a soliloquy, Sparrow focused on his immediate situation: weapon in hand, fallen warrior at his feet, trees everywhere . . .
Planet of the Apes.
He prodded his would-be attacker with a foot, eliciting a groan, then noticed the silence on the line.
“. . . Yeah, still here. And I have ideas, don’t worry. You know me. Ideas is what I do.”
Which was as well, because Anthony Sparrow had some work-related issues of his own that he’d rather his caller didn’t know about. Some, though, might be alleviated by discussion with Benito once the more aggressive aspects of the afternoon’s agenda had been settled. The fact that you were mortal enemies didn’t mean you couldn’t do business. If that were the case, you’d never get anything done. Besides, Benito was a fellow alpha. Sparrow mostly worked among malleable idiots, so it was something of a pleasure to negotiate on his own level.
Speaking of malleable idiots . . .
On closer inspection, he noticed that his victim wasn’t one of Benito’s crew at all, but on Sparrow’s own side. Still, there he was, prone and useless, and Sparrow holding a club.
His caller was still talking, so he tapped a finger against his phone three times, a signal both knew meant the conversation had passed all useful purpose. Then waited a moment.
“Not at all. What I’m here for.”
He waited some more. And then:
“Yes, prime minister. See you in the morning.”
And, call over, Sparrow raised his club and brought it down as hard as he could, and then again, and again, until this anonymous creature was where all his opponents ended, dumb and dusted at his feet.