Basketball great Steph Curry was once an underdog, or so a recent Apple TV documentary tells us, and this summer, unseeded Czech Markéta Vondroušová won the women’s title at Wimbledon. Markéta Vondroušová! As these athletes will tell you, being underrated can be an advantage. When expectations are low, the pressure eases, and you’re free to play your best.
The spies, murderers, and slacker-on-a-mission in this month’s books all benefit in different ways from being underestimated. It’s their superpower, until it isn’t.
The spooks in Mick Herron’s new novel are not the flashy James Bond type, as fans of his Slough House books already know. They’re more the offspring of John le Carré, plying their trade in that familiar gray area.
The Secret Hours moves back and forth between Berlin in 1994 and present-day England, where we’re introduced to the Monochrome inquiry, set in motion by a vindictive prime minister to uncover wrongdoing at Regent’s Park, Herron’s version of M.I.5. Which does not sit well with its head, known as “First Desk.” So of course the investigation is doomed to be a grinding, slow-motion career-ender for Griselda Fleet and Malcolm Kyle, the two civil servants running it.
Then, just as Monochrome is about to fade to black, someone slips Malcolm a classified file that leads to the testimony of witness No. 137, who, unlike the previous 136 witnesses, has a compelling tale to tell about disastrous events at the Berlin Station House in 1994. Monochrome is officially shut down before the story is complete, but Griselda and Malcolm continue the investigation on their own.
The first thing you should know when embarking on The Secret Hours is that it requires your full attention, whether it’s focused on the stinky dead badger on page one, or Malcolm dithering over his grocery list. These bits will make you laugh but also may contain some obscure yet crucial piece of information that will prove important later.
Herron is meticulous in his depictions of tradecraft and the dark corners where spooks ply their trade, but he is an unambiguous, 21st-century cynic. He’s built a bewildering labyrinth where everyone is playing everyone else and betrayal is commonplace. Self-interest and the maintenance of power are the prime motivators in Herron’s version of the spy game.
And Brinsley Miles plays it his way. An agent at the post-Wall Berlin Station House, he treats it like his personal playground, ignoring the rules and trolling strip clubs and back alleys for intel. This recklessness eventually leads to the scandal revealed by witness No. 137.
In The Secret Hours, Mick Herron is meticulous in his depictions of tradecraft and the dark corners where spooks ply their trade, but he is an unambiguous, 21st-century cynic.
Though The Secret Hours is described as a stand-alone, familiar Slough House characters figure in the story under code names, and it contains revelations about their pasts that fans of those books and the Slow Horses TV series won’t want to miss. It’s also a fine way into Slough House–ology if this is your first crack at Herron.
The evildoers couldn’t be less conspicuous in The Raging Storm, Ann Cleeves’s third mystery featuring Matthew Venn, a gay man who broke from the Brethren, the austere religious community he was raised in, to later become a police detective and marry the man he loved. But he still can’t quite shake the Brethren’s judgment about his sexuality and career choice, making him self-contained and watchful, always on the outside looking in.
Into Venn’s territory, the coastal village of Greystone in North Devon, bursts Jeremy Rosco, a local boy who gained fame as a sailor and professional adventurer—sort of an older, brinier Bear Grylls. No one knows why he’s back, but his charisma lights up the grim town like a beacon, until he’s gone again.
The evildoers couldn’t be less conspicuous in Ann Cleeves’s The Raging Storm.
In the midst of a lashing storm, Rosco turns up dead in a dinghy anchored in a cove, and Venn and his team are called in to investigate.
The reticent locals provide Venn with a frustratingly incomplete picture of the victim’s past, their small resentments and grudges coloring their stories. As his team delves further into the community, Cleeves explores Venn’s interior life, his insecurity and self-doubt never far from the buttoned-up surface.
Cleeves, author of the Vera Stanhope and Shetland books, is as observant as ever about atmosphere and geography, and conjures an impression of oppressive bleakness, with few daylight hours to brighten the rocky beaches and imposing cliffs. Such relentless dreariness could drive anyone to the edge; the identities of the killers are almost as shocking as the crime itself.
We may expect the unexpected from villains, but the underestimated hero, like the one in Dark Ride, is rarer. There is no one less likely to save the day than Hardy “Hardly” Reed, a 23-year-old stoner who works as a scare actor in a clapped-out amusement park in a nothing city in “the middle of the middle of the United States.” Hardly has zero ambition and is totally fine with that. “I like being ordinary. I enjoy the lack of stress,” he explains.
So all his days look pretty much the same. Put on the Dead Sheriff costume and scare the patrons of Haunted Frontier, go home to a converted garage, smoke a bowl with stoner friends, watch old episodes of The Office, and repeat.
We may expect the unexpected from villains, but the underestimated hero, like the one in Lou Berney’s Dark Ride, is rarer.
Until one day his flow is forever interrupted. Hardly is at the municipal building, delaying a traffic ticket, when he sees two children sitting on a bench by themselves. He notices them because they’re so well behaved, but when he goes over to say hi, he sees something he can’t ignore or forget: a trio of cigarette burns on each one, not quite obscured by their clothing.
So begins Hardly Reed’s D.I.Y. mission to find out what’s going on and rescue the kids. He admits he has no idea what he’s doing, but for once he has a goal and will do anything with his limited abilities and resources to achieve it, with assistance from an alt version of the Tin Man, the Cowardly Lion, and the Scarecrow. Plus a smokin’-hot good witch.
Dark Ride is not a slam-bang, action-packed thriller. Other writers can do that, but only Lou Berney could create Hardly, one of the most endearing characters in recent memory. Writing in his Hardly’s guileless, hilariously dude-ish narrative voice, Berney is incapable of producing a wrong or unnecessary sentence.
Hardly doesn’t get a transformational superhero moment; he just applies himself and improves. He learns that, against all odds and sensible advice, he can actually get stuff done. His path is messy and dangerous, but it’s also inspiring and ultimately heartbreaking. This is one of my favorite books of the year.
Lisa Henricksson reviews mystery books at AIR MAIL. She lives in New York City