Fresh Meat: Nobody Walks by Mick Herron

Nobody Walks by Mick Herron is set in the same fictional London as his Slough House series, and now introduces Tom Bettany, an ex-spook with a violent past and only one thing to live for one thing — avenging his son’s death (available February 17, 2015).

The news had come hundreds of miles to sit waiting for days in a mislaid phone. And there it lingered like a moth in a box, weightless, and aching for the light.

So begins Mick Herron’s beautiful, bleak novel of a former spy for the MI5, come home at last to investigate the sudden death of his estranged son. After years of self-imposed exile abroad, Tom Bettany receives a voicemail that compels him to return to a London now alien to him. Grappling with the grief that has come so unexpectedly, he realizes that all is not as it seems with his son’s fatal fall from an apartment balcony. His inquiries soon have him crossing paths with high-tech billionaires and drug-dealing criminals, as well as with the weapons dealers he’d previously betrayed while in the service. And lurking in the background are his watchful former bosses, with their own secret, none-too-benign purposes.

At first, we’re buoyed along with Bettany as he tries to cope with his loss in the only way he knows how: by getting to the truth of his son’s death and punishing those responsible. Over the course of his investigations, Bettany reflects on his past and the choices that have brought him to this shadow of a life. Lonely, grieving and calculating, he knows that his training has predisposed him to violence but is unable to find a better way to come to terms with his feelings.

Bettany is far more morally complex than the usual hero of a tale of vengeance, or even of espionage. Frankly, there are few heroes in this book beyond the ordinary, flawed people trying to do the best with what they have — but the villains are legion and unafraid to use and harm anyone who crosses their paths. Mick Herron shows us not only this violence but its aftermath, with vivid imagery and psychological acuity, as in this passage where a man once terrorized by Bettany stares at two raindrops rolling down the outside of his window:

He was in his kitchen. Coming on lunchtime, but he wasn’t hungry. If he ate he’d throw up everywhere, and that would be another room closed to him, another place he couldn’t stand to be. His sitting room was already out of bounds, where Thomas Bettany had robbed him of… He couldn’t list precisely what Bettany had stolen, but knew he was no longer the person he’d been. Once you’d faced torture, even if that torture never laid blade on skin, you were diminished. You knew the floor of your own fear, and how it felt to be dragged along its surface.

One drop of water won the race, and the other lost. Coe had forgotten which was which.

If he smashed the window, glass would go tumbling down onto passing strangers, leaving ears severed, lips like burst strawberries. Wounds blossomed whenever Coe closed his eyes.

Nobody Walks is a taut, brutal, gorgeously written novel that delves deeply into the psychology of a former undercover operative and the people he works both with and against. The ending…well, it made me flinch, and I’ve read more than my fair share of bleak literature over the years. It’s unexpected, and moving, and far more haunting than I’d expected from a spy thriller. But then, I knew I was in for something different from that first, exquisite paragraph alone.

Which isn’t to say that this is a perfect book: for quite a stretch of it, I was deeply skeptical of the motive ascribed to the mastermind, till Mick Herron pulled me back in with his clever characterization. That’s part of the fun of genre fiction, though, that willing suspension of disbelief. Nobody Walks is a spy thriller through and through, but it’s also a fine piece of writing, and a standout in a field of books too often as disposable as their purported heroes.

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Doreen Sheridan is a freelance writer living in Washington, D.C. She
microblogs on Twitter @dvaleris.

Read all posts by Doreen Sheridan for Criminal Element.