Living alone in a month-to-month London sublet, a woman with virtually no friends or family is recruited by MI5 to help thwart an international plot that puts all of Great Britain at risk. By the award-winning author of Slow Horses.
Mick Herron was born in Newcastle and has a degree in English from Balliol College, Oxford. He is the author of ten other novels, Slow Horses, Dead Lions, Nobody Walks, Real Tigers, Spook Street, Down Cemetery Road, The Last Voice You Hear, Why We Die, Smoke and Whispers, and Reconstruction, as well as the novella The List. His work has won the CWA Gold Dagger for Best Crime Novel, the Steel Dagger for Best Thriller, and the Ellery Queen Readers Award, and been nominated for the Macavity, Barry, Shamus, and Theakstons Novel of the Year Awards.
*Starred Review* A profoundly disturbing tale from CWA Gold and Steel Daggers winner Herron about an insufficiently socialized young woman who was never warned to be careful what she wished for. Twenty-six-year-old Maggie Barnes is, sadly, one of those people you would never look at twice, the kind of person who could vanish from the face of the earth without anyone taking notice. She lives a solitary, more or less hand-to-mouth existence in a London that is singularly bleak. There is an aching absence of color and texture, except for a telltale yellow scarf. Maggie believes she has been recruited for MI5 by a man she meets at a local café. Is this, at last, a chance to make her life matter? Of course not, but for someone as desperate as Maggie to find a way out of the emptiness that engulfs her, there's no choice but to grab what might be a lifeline. For the reader, the gradual realization of what is actually happening to Maggie brings to mind Miranda Grey's ordeal in John Fowles' chilling The Collector (1963). Herron's tight prose is laced with black humor, without one unnecessary word. His mastery of narrative pacing shines in a dim and stifling setting where time is being deliberately held still. Any action is slowed down by the confusion and hesitancy of the characters. Fans who miss the startling and compelling psychological suspense of Ruth Rendell will relish this unsettling tale. Copyright 2017 Booklist Reviews.
The latest stand-alone from Herron couldn't be more different from his bustling, often brutally funny series about the government agents at Slough House (Spook Street, 2017, etc.). This pared-down exercise in suspense is just plain brutal."I wish this were like the films," Harvey Wells tells Maggie Barnes, the mouse he's recruited to run a delicate undercover errand for MI5. All Harvey wants Maggie to do is install an eavesdropping program in one of the computers in Quilp House, where she works in the bowels of the post office. And it's for the good of her nation and the world, since the functionaries of Quilp House, it seems, are actually working for the Chinese government. But Harvey can't offer Maggie moment-by-moment instructions or surveillance or backup; if she gets caught or anything goes wrong, she's on her own. This opening movement recalls the recruiting of the suicidal heroine of So Many Steps to Death 60 years ago, but Herron has some fantastical twists in mind th at Agatha Christie never dreamed of. Something does go wrong; Maggie does get caught; and although Harvey rescues her, her life as she knows it is essentially over. To say more would spoil some of the surprises planted at regular intervals throughout the hyperextended period following Maggie's single attempt at counterespionage. Suffice it to say that Herron spins a remarkable, if often blankly incredible, tale whose dramatis personae are limited to three characters, one walk-on, and a few others dimly or harshly remembered. Given Herron's outrageous premise, the complications are managed with delicious control. Only the last act stumbles, because the climax is the only part of this story that's remotely predictable. Copyright Kirkus 2017 Kirkus/BPI Communications. All rights reserved.
The longer she sat there, the colder she became. With her back to the cistern, and her feet drawn up beneath her, Maggie perched on the closed lid of the toilet, and concentrated on being as still as possible. An hour earlier, a spasm in her leg had caused the overhead lights to switch on. Their electric hum had startled her more than the glare. Someone would hear it, she thought, and come investigate. But nobody arrived, and the spasm subsided, and a few minutes later the lights turned themselves off again.
“How long do I have to hide in the toilets?” she had asked Harvey.
“Until twelve. At least.”
“The guard patrols all night long.”
“But there’s only one of him. And he can’t be on every floor at once.”
She had an urge to confirm that the flash drive was still in her pocket, but any movement would bring the lights to life, and besides, she had checked three times already.
Alone in the dark Maggie squeezed her eyes shut, tried not to shiver, and made herself invisible.
Quilp House was twenty-seven storeys high, each spreading out from a central lobby area where the lifts were, and around which the stairwells ran. In the lower half of the building the floors were open-plan, with rows of desks divided into three or four work-stations apiece. During the day a kind of electricity filled the air, which was not so much the ambient excitement caused by communion with the world’s markets as much as it was the repressed emotions of people forced to work in close proximity, and thus hold in their baser reactions, their bodily rumblings.
From the twentieth level, the building changed character. Here, people worked behind closed doors, in progressively larger offices. Views became spectacular. The higher up you were, the further off you could see the weather.
On these floors cameras blinked at corridors’ ends, little red lights above their lenses signalling vigilance. Occasionally they swivelled, redirecting their meerkat gaze.
“What about the CCTV?”
“There are two guards on the night shift,” Harvey had explained. He was patient with her. Without having to be told, she knew he understood what it was to step across the lines that bordered daily behaviour. “One to patrol, and the other to watch the screens. The TV monitors. Do you know how many of these there are?”
She had a vision of a wall built of pixels, boasting as many views of corridors as there were satellite channels screening sport.
“There are six,” he said. “And they alternate from camera to camera. Which means the odds are against your showing up on screen at any given time.”
“So they don’t automatically detect motion?”
“Maggie.” He had reached across the table and put his hand on hers. Around them had been the usual clatter of young mums and earnest hipsters: like most of their conversations, this had taken place in the café where they first met. Where he had first approached her. “It’s fine to be scared. It’s fine not to want to do this.”
“I do want to do it.”
“And I wouldn’t ask if I could see any other way of getting the job done. If you knew—”
He broke off while a young woman squeezed past with a tray piled high with dirty mugs, their rims laced with froth.
“I know you wouldn’t,” she told him.
Because she was his only hope.
Her wristwatch pinged when midnight struck.
For a moment, the sound confused her—she had not been asleep, precisely, but had entered a fugue state in which memories and plans collided, throwing sparks off each other—and she jerked upright, banging her head against the cistern. An image of her sister popped and vanished as the cubicle light flickered on, followed by the other bulbs in the lavatory. Her heart pounded. Someone would come. But nobody did, and after a moment Maggie unfolded her limbs, which were creaky with cold, and tried to rub life into them.
Pins and needles assaulted her fingers. She did not feel like an agent on a mission. She felt like a young woman up past bedtime, who wanted only to crawl beneath some covers and find warmth.
“What do I do now, Harvey?” she whispered.
It would have been nice if he’d been there, offering an answer. But it was up to her now. She was on her own.
Because it didn’t matter—because the lights had blinked on anyway—before making her way out of the cubicle, she raised the toilet lid, pulled down her jeans and pants, and used it for the purpose for which it was intended. Then she rearranged her clothing, closed the lid, and had her hand on the handle before she caught herself—that would be all she needed, to send a watery alarm cascading through the building. She imagined security guards stomping up and down the stairwells, crashing into the lavatories on each floor, throwing open doors, looking for the culprit.
“Maggie, Maggie,” she murmured to herself.
When her heart rate was normal she unlocked her cubicle and tiptoed to the door and opened it and peered out.
The corridor was in darkness. The motion sensors were sleepy, and wouldn’t kick in until she stepped outside. Even then they allowed a second or two’s grace, as if they needed convincing that they weren’t rousing themselves for someone of no consequence. For a mouse, creeping its night-time way along an empty hall.
Rather than a spy. An agent on a mission.
“Trying not to make the lights come on will only stress you out,” Harvey had said. “It can’t be done. You have to move to get where you need to be, and the sensors will do the rest. So don’t worry about them. You can’t control the things you can’t control.”
It was nice that he was confident she could control the other things.
“Maggie, Maggie,” she chided herself again. Here was the equation: if the lights were off, the guard wasn’t on this floor. And if he wasn’t on this floor, he wouldn’t see the lights coming on.
Which meant it was safe to step out into the corridor.
But before she could do so the lights flickered and the door to the lobby clicked shut, and then—loud as a lion—she could hear the breathy whistling of the security guard as he rounded the corner, heading her way.
“I wish this were like the films,” Harvey had said, “where you have an earpiece and a radio mic, and we’re synchronised to the nanosecond. And I’d be hacked into the security system, so I could tell you when it’s safe to walk down a corridor, and when to shelter under a desk. But life’s not like that, Maggie. This business isn’t like that. We’re a lot more . . . We’re less James Bond and a lot more, I don’t know, Mr. Bean or someone. We have to use what’s at hand. And I wish I didn’t have to ask you to do this. If I could do it myself, I would. If there were any other way . . .”
He had not finished his sentence. He hadn’t needed to.
“And let me say this. You’re a brave girl, a tremendous girl, and I couldn’t be prouder of you. But if you want to back out, do it now. Because from here on, it’ll be too late.”
“I don’t want to back out.”
She did, though.
What he was asking was that she put her head in the dragon’s mouth. It was so far removed from her daily life she might as well be watching it in one of those films it wasn’t like, and even there at the table she could feel her innards contract, her thighs grow watery. She’d wobble when she stood, she knew she would. And she ought to tell him he’d picked the wrong girl, a nobody, who couldn’t be relied on. She’d dissolve into panic at the worst moment. She wasn’t icy cool and she wasn’t super-hot. He’d plucked her from a crowd, and really, it would be sensible to let her subside back into it, and lose herself among the traffic.
But if she said that she’d see disappointment cross his features, that strange mix of the ugly and the sad on which she’d come to depend.
And besides . . . And besides, what he was asking of her was important. For Queen and country, he’d have said in the old days, though here in the modern world it was more tangible than that. What he was asking her to be was a cog in a larger wheel, on whose turning much depended. He was giving her the opportunity of helping ensure that something did not happen. That there was a fundamental anonymity to this—success measured as an absence of event—did not faze her. Anonymity was her natural setting, her personality’s screensaver. Just ask Meredith.
“Good, then. Good.” He fished about in his pocket.
For all he’d said about not being James Bond, Maggie had still expected something flashy, in a silver case perhaps, moulded to fit. But instead he’d handed her a very ordinary flash drive, the size of her thumb. It was black, with a white label so its contents could be indexed. This was blank, of course. When she reached to take it from him, he held it over her palm for a moment.
“But listen. Whatever happens, you mustn’t let this fall into their hands. They mustn’t know you’ve got it, mustn’t know you’ve used it. Once it’s done its job, you have to either get it out of the building, or hide it somewhere it won’t be found. And they will be looking.” His gaze was intense. She imagined this the look men used when sending other men to war. You might not come back. But I will remember you. “If they find you, if they know you’ve been there, they’ll be looking for this. And they mustn’t find it. I can’t tell you how crucial that is.”
She could only nod.
He let go of the drive and there it was, on her palm.
Maggie made a fist round it, keeping it safe.
She melted back inside, letting the door close silently, and stood with her back to it, her heart’s hammering the loudest sound in London. He would hear her through the wood, and see the light beneath the door. Or put a hand to it and push, the automatic gesture of the guard on patrol, and when he encountered the resistance of her weight, it would be over. Alarms would sound, or whistles blow. Those meerkat cameras would turn and point, and her image would plaster itself over the monitors downstairs—six of them? The other guard, the one whose job it was to lean back in his chair and eat doughnuts, would reach for the telephone. And it would not be the police he would call, Harvey had left her in no doubt about that. The people whose building this was, whose secrets it contained, they looked after their own. The last thing they’d do would be call the police.
But he won’t see the light, she thought, because the lights are on in the corridor too. There’ll be no telltale yellow strip painting the carpet. This was just another door, the ladies’ loo, and why would he check that it opened? It always opened.
His whistling was familiar, a tune on the edge of her recall. It faded as he walked past, and the creaking of his tread on the carpet disappeared. The door he’d come through, from the lobby where the lifts and stairwells were, was off to her right, and if he completed a circuit of the floor he would not pass by again but enter the same lobby from the other side. But she didn’t know his routines, whether he might halt halfway and retrace his steps, or whether he was heading for a particular desk, or for the vending machine in the kitchen area . . . She could slip out now, and run into him three seconds later. Or this might be as close as their paths would come, and the fact that she’d just evaded him—had all but felt his breath on her cheek—might itself be a token that her safety was now assured.
Maggie, Maggie . . .
There were no tokens, no guarantees. But what was certain was that the light was currently on. Slipping into the corridor would cause nothing to change. As soon as this thought took hold of her she acted on it, standing upright, opening the door, stepping outside. The corridor was empty. Choosing the direction the guard had come from, she hurried round the corner to the lobby door.