Dead Lions is the second spy novel in Mick Herron’s Slough House series. The first one, Slow Horses, was a great romp about a small group of disgraced MI5 spies who get sent to Slough House. They’re given nothing to do, and the hope is they will simply quit. I thoroughly enjoyed Slow Horses, so I was prepared to be disappointed. You know, that sophomore slump thing. If you’ve seen the Indiana Jones movies, you understand. I didn’t need to worry. Dead Lions delivers though the ending is anti-climatic. The enemy’s ultimate goal doesn’t seem to justify the effort required. But it’s still a fun ride.
A middling spy from the Cold War era turns up dead on a bus near Oxford. Jackson Lamb, the head of Slough House, knew him from his Berlin days. He decides to investigate and finds the dead man’s cell phone hidden on the bus. An unsent message reads Cicadas, which refers to a myth about the Soviets planting undercover spies in England. These spies would fully assimilate and do nothing untoward for years or even decades until Moscow would finally give them an assignment that would devastate the country. Here’s the catch. MI5 long ago determined the Cicada program was a false flag. It only existed as a myth. But now there is this dead old spy on a bus. Slough House has a new assignment. And, remember, “When lions yawn, it doesn’t mean they’re tired. It means they’re waking up.”
Slow Horses and Dead Lions succeed because Jackson Lamb is a guilty pleasure. He’s a misanthrope who delights in denigrating . . . well, everyone. Lamb’s an HR nightmare. But he knows what he’s doing. “Lamb had done both field and desk, and he knew which had you gasping awake at the slightest noise in the dark. But he’d yet to meet a suit who didn’t think themselves a samurai.”
So is Lamb chasing a ghost or is the threat real? Well, here’s another animal reference for you. A black swan is a “totally unexpected event with a big impact. But one that seems predictable afterwards, with the benefit of hindsight.” Does that answer your question?
It was a “yes” or “no” question, so not really. But I have one more. Why call the novel Dead Lions? Several reasons, I suspect. The most explicit one is “Dead Lions” purports to be an English party game for children. “You have to pretend to be dead. Lie still. Do nothing.” At the game’s end, all hell breaks loose. Goodness, those English folks sure know how to have fun.
Gladiola Overdrive, Chief Editor