Guilty Pleasure: Jackson Lamb thrillers

Pointy end of the thesis is upon me. I am getting it done. I’d possibly be getting it done marginally quicker if it weren’t for Mick Herron‘s “Jackson Lamb” thrillers.

I stumbled on the first, Slow Horses in a charity shop in Glossop (as you do). The conceit looked amusing – what if MI5 had the same problem as any other large organisation – there are always people who should never have been recruited, who have screwed up or burnt out but are too difficult to sack directly (they know where the bodies are buried, or would cause awkward scenes). So, what do you do, you slough them of to somewhere and give them meaningless work until they quit… It probably happens, who knows.

So, we have Slough house (get it – Slow, slough of despond, sloughing off dead skin – ain’t English wonderful?), a nondescript building near Barbican where assorted drunks, gamblers, anti-socials and so on are under the caustic eye of one Jackson Lamb, a gross and harsh figure, somewhere between Pantagruel and the police chief Rawls in The Wire.

The Wire analogy is not amiss – in both we see law enforcement agencies struggling with budgets, office politics, incompetence and malice, before they even get round to their ostensible job (protecting the punters).

So far there have been four books (I gave the first to my mother-in-law, who went out and got the next three, read them and gave them back via the book delivery service also known as The Wife).

Slow Horses deals introduced Lamb’s charges – there’s a bravura opening sequence involving a young agent-in-training, River Cartwright trying to track down a terrorist in King’s Cross tube station. It all goes wrong…

I’ll copy and paste the Amazon blurb –

when a young man is abducted, and his kidnappers threaten to behead him live on the internet, River sees an opportunity to redeem himself. But is the victim who he first appears to be? And what’s the kidnappers’ connection with a disgraced journalist? As the clock ticks on the execution, River finds that everyone involved has their own agenda . . .

Dead Lions is the equally satisfying sequel – a clever weaving together of Cold War concerns, vaulting ambition and London’s super-rich.

The third, Real Tigers, has one slow horse kidnapped and the others not sure what is going on. There is a description of one British politician (a large loud blond who says things like ‘cripes’ and so on) that must have had the libel lawyers earning their keep…
This, about MI5’s problem with storing its hard-copy files was fun –

“For once, it seemed, Ingrid Tearney and Dian Taverner had been of one mind. A Confidential Storage facility was required, separate from Regent’s Park, and ticking three main boxes; acreage, security and a potential for plausible damage. In other word,s somewhere files could easily be said to have been lost to fire and flood, or eaten by rats, or consumed by mould.” (p68)

The fourth, Spook Street, finally succumbs to the hoary old “old mission/blowback/the Cold War” device for its plot and gets away with it thanks to Herron’s writing ability.

Each book takes place over a matter of days (in Spook Street one very very busy day indeed), with back stories slowly unfolding, punctuated with sudden and plausible violence

Herron can write dialogue, and create characters (it matters when slow horses die, and they do.) He’s good at mis-direction and his plotting and pacing are excellent.

Tl:dr This is a series to keep up with. But AFTER MY THESIS.

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Collegiality v bureaucracy v palm trees and Stamford Raffles. And Instagram.

It’s been a while since I posted, because I have been
a) thesising
b) writing a book chapter (intimately related to a) above))

Still, this and a book I just read (see next post) deserve recording for posterity (or at least until the electricity systems collapse).

My friend Mark Carrigan (top bloke, btw) has just written a v. good post “the social struggle between collegiality and bureaucracy”.  It’s not long, and it’s a corker.

It put me in mind of The Peter Principle (people are promoted to their level of incompetence and stay there) and the way people who couldn’t do a job at the coalface got eased (or eased themselves) sideways into ‘management’ and then gradually rose/climbed their way up.  While often harbouring resentment/envy (consciously or unconsciously) of those who could Do The Job.  And then punished those people for being competent, collegiate etc.  Herman Melville wrote a whole novella about this, Billy Budd.

It also put me in mind of something I read (in a Granta?) of a factory in Wales where there had been a lovely view of the hills… till someone calculated they could extract more work if people didn’t sometimes stop and look at those hills, and had the windows bricked up.

An older example of this and a newer, really scary one.
Older one – Stamford Raffles.

When Sir Stamford Raffles went to Singapore, he went by way of Indonesia and saw how self-reliant people were with the palms that provided them with everything they needed. He said ‘These people are ungovernable’. There was nothing the government could give them that they wanted or needed. So what had to be done was clear. Cut the fucking palms down, so they became dependent, and hence governable. You can’t govern independent people. They have no need of anything you can bring them.”

Bill Mollison (founder of ‘permaculture’) in Jeremy Seabrook’s book ‘Pioneers of Change’

And more recently (like, now) from this terrifying article
The makers of smartphone apps rightly believe that part of the reason we’re so curious about those notifications is that people are desperately insecure and crave positive feedback with a kneejerk desperation. Matt Mayberry, who works at a California startup called Dopamine Labs, says it’s common knowledge in the industry that Instagram exploits this craving by strategically withholding “likes” from certain users. If the photo-sharing app decides you need to use the service more often, it’ll show only a fraction of the likes you’ve received on a given post at first, hoping you’ll be disappointed with your haul and check back again in a minute or two. “They’re tying in to your greatest insecurities,” Mr. Mayberry said.
Instagram denies this – MRDA.