Slow Horses by Mick Herron
I haven’t read a great deal of spy fiction in recent years, although I liked John Le Carré when I was a teenager. However, I heard Harriett Gilbert praising Mick Herron’s Slow Horses on BBC Radio 4’s excellent book programme, A Good Read, and decided I’d give it a try.
The most exciting things the slow horses usually get to do are going through bins and monitoring chatrooms, but when a 19-year-old student is abducted and held hostage by terrorists who threaten to behead him live online, there seems to be a tenuous link to some of the slow horses' routine non-operations. Gradually, Lamb's team become drawn into an increasingly dangerous and complex set of events that could not only culminate in a young man's decapitation but could also end what few shreds of a career the slow horses have been allowed to retain.
The plot is as complicated as you'd expect from a spy novel, full of misdirection, bluffs and double-bluffs; you do have to read carefully to keep track of what's going on. It starts at a fairly slow pace, which I know will annoy some readers, but it soon picks up and develops into a tense story with numerous cliffhangers. However, it's the characters as much as the action that make Slow Horses such a cracking read. It has a large cast and even the bit-players feel uncannily real. Lamb is a thoroughly entertaining anti-hero and his team, every one of harbouring some level of bitterness and regret, are such a tragic bunch that's impossible not to root for them even they're being unpleasant - which is often, particularly to each other, and makes for some particularly smart, witty dialogue and gallows humour.
It probably says a lot about me that I prefer spy novels that are about a bunch of barely competent losers, but I enjoyed Slow Horses a lot and will definitely be reading the others in the series.