“Bad Actors” by Mick Herron. Crime of Soho, 360 pages, $27.95
Bad actors abound in Mick Herron’s engaging spy series that revolves around the siege of Slough House. These British spies are not powerful, adrenaline-seeking undercover agents to save the world.
Instead, it’s the crooks and blunderers, the spies who screwed up so badly they put colleagues and national secrets at risk.
It wasn’t always like this. They were once ‘the potential stars of the British security service’. Nicknamed ‘Slow Horses’, this ragtag group would never be mistaken for James Bond, but they could easily be compared to the paper sales staff of ‘The Office’.
“Bad Actors,” Herron’s insightful eighth outing into the world of these Slow Horses, centers on the disappearance of Sophie de Greer, a “superforecaster” who can predict voter reactions to government policies. It is possible that Sophie is working for the Russians; it’s also possible that she was kidnapped or just decided to take some time for herself.
Either way, her disappearance captures the attention of Anthony Sparrow, the prime minister’s violent and frightening “enforcer.” He hired Sophie and would be professionally embarrassed if she was a Russian factory. Diane Taverner, an assertive head of MI5, is also interested because Sophie’s Russian links – if true – could be blamed on her.
While their superiors see them as incompetents working in Regent’s Park “flea pit”, the Slough House team thrives on chaos and uncovering the truth.
Herron mixes dry humour, reflections on British and world politics and superbly developed characters who have learned to “embrace dissatisfaction and boredom; looking back with disappointment; look around in dismay. Herron’s deft storytelling feeds into his deliberate, methodical plotting featured in “Bad Actors.” It’s often hard to tell who the good guys are and who the bad guys are because each side thinks they’re on the good side.
Herron’s series has now been adapted for Apple TV. The six-episode first season debuted in April, starring Gary Oldman, Jonathan Pryce and Kristin Scott Thomas – not a bad actor in this cast.
Breathless by Amy McCulloch. Anchor, 368 pages, $28
Children’s and young adult author Amy McCulloch takes her storytelling skills to new heights – literally – in her first foray into adult mysteries in this gripping novel set in the world of extreme rock climbing set against a vivid backdrop. of the Himalayas.
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“Breathless” quickly evolves into an intense look at the power and cruelty of nature and the cruelty of humans while showing that no matter how hard we try, people cannot conquer nature.
‘Breathless’ revolves around adventure travel journalist Cecily Wong, who hopes to launch her career with a landmark interview with mountaineer Charles McVeigh, who is set to become ‘legendary’ as the only person to have climbed all 14 peaks above 26,000 feet in one year without ropes or supplemental oxygen. This is an unprecedented feat as most mountaineers have climbed ‘expedition’, or ‘siege’ style, using every advantage possible, from gear to Sherpas to ascend and descend mountains safely. The last peak on Charles’ list is Nepal’s Manaslu Peak, the eighth highest mountain in the world.
The charismatic – and arrogant – Charles only accepted the interview if Cecily climbs to the top with him and his team. But Cecily is a novice climber, at best, “most famous for not having reached the top of the mountains”.
The grueling ascent begins normally, but what appears to be an accidental death is followed by a suspicious death. It soon becomes apparent that one of the seven members of Charles’ team – all of whom are strangers – is a killer.
“Breathless” is an adventure story and a coming-of-age story. Cecily must overcome her fears to discover an inner strength she never knew she had. She knows her future hinges on this climb and her article, but even that might not be enough to propel her into Manaslu. His personality is strong enough to build a series around.
McCulloch’s pointed narration suits readers, puts material in their hands, and leads them up the mountain with its rarefied air – above 26,000 feet, the altitude known as the “death zone.” McCulloch shows the breathtaking vistas, gaping crevices and steep drops. This is wheelchair adventure at its finest.
Oline H. Cogdill can be reached at [email protected].