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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

The Secret Hours

Mick Herron

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To purchase The Secret Hours

Title: The Secret Hours
Author: Mick Herron
Genre: Novel
Written: 2023
Length: 365 pages
Availability: The Secret Hours - US
The Secret Hours - UK
The Secret Hours - Canada
from: Bookshop.org (US)

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Our Assessment:

A- : very, very good -- both the story and its presentation

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Financial Times . 8/9/2023 Boyd Tonkin
The Guardian . 8/9/2023 Nicholas Wroe
The Guardian . 5/9/2023 Alison Flood
London Rev. of Books . 19/10/2023 Thomas Jones
The Spectator . 9/9/2023 Nicholas Lezard
Sunday Times . 3/9/2023 Sarah Ditum
The Times . 2/9/2023 James Owen
Wall St. Journal . 6/10/2023 Tom Nolan

  From the Reviews:
  • "Herron keeps up his gravity-defying balancing act: belly-laugh spy spoof on one side, elegiac state-of-the-nation satire on the other, with a thin, taut line of polished prose between." - Boyd Tonkin, Financial Times

  • "Herron obviously relishes his digs at the many real-life shambles that have played out so garishly since, say, 2016. Here he also pretty seamlessly and efficiently ventilates issues of corruption, surveillance, ownership of data, and the private sector takeover of the state, against all the ripping yarn of the espionage tale. And if there is any sense that Herron has filled in his background with broad brushstrokes, as ever he has reserved his most delicate and affecting work for his characters in the foreground." - Nicholas Wroe, The Guardian

  • "The Secret Hours has all of Herron’s tight plotting and characteristically low-key humour (...). It’s an excellent standalone, but fans of his Slough House books would do well to pick it up too." - Alison Flood, The Guardian

  • "It lingers too long on the earlier witnesses to the inquiry, who supposedly have nothing of merit to bring to the table, but give Herron the occasion for a bit of satire that sometimes backfires. (...) But when Herron’s satire punches up (...), or takes aim at broader targets (...), it hits home." - Thomas Jones, London Review of Books

  • "What you will be reading is an unusually satisfying spy novel, with fully developed characters, first-rate dialogue (...) and turns of phrase (...), and a sense of depth, the story being set in the present, but with long flashbacks to 1994 Berlin, the Cold War over but with plenty of unfinished business to attend to." - Nicholas Lezard, The Spectator

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The Secret Hours begins in the present-day, with sixty-three-year-old Max Janáček -- described parenthetically as a retired academic, now: "mostly just passing the days" -- realizing, late at night, that someone is breaking into his house. He can't be sure whether it's simply a burglary attempt or something more personal, but indications quickly mount that it's the latter. He's the kind of person who has a 'flight kit', so he's clearly been prepared for something like this happening, or at least entertained the thought; it's quickly clear that he at least has a good idea about how to handle a situation like this and, given the circumstances, he does so reasonably well. But he's left with a problem -- someone is clearly after him -- and he has no idea who, or why, or how they found him.
       The book then moves over to the recently established Monochrome inquiry, an attempt by the near-present-day British government (very much resembling the actual one at that time) to rattle the British Security Service (MI5), its remit: "to investigate historical over-reaching by the intelligence services". However, as First Desk -- the imposing woman who runs MI5, always only referred to as 'First Desk' -- explains to those then tasked with leading the Monochrome inquiry: "The sad truth is, whoever wrote up your remit was a little lax when it came to the small print", and the result is that the inquiry is stymied from the start: they don't know what they're looking for, and without ready access to the official files -- First Desk sees to that --, can't go rooting around to try to find cases of over-reach. It's a vicious circle they find themselves in, as they can more or less only rely on the general public and the complaints they make -- which all merit basically no attention whatsoever.
       Nevertheless, Monochrome is an irritant to First Desk, and one she'd like to be rid of sooner rather than later -- the duration of the remit is, inconveniently, entirely open-ended -- and so she works behind the scenes to see that the plug is pulled. Others also have some interest in what Monochrome might uncover and want to be in the know, just in case -- so, as we learn, someone has a mole on the panel that is conducting the inquiry. Here, as elsewhere, Herron plays with identity and names: he doesn't identify the mole, only the code-name the mole ('Toad') and the employer (referred to in this context only as: 'Ratty') call each other; only as the novel progresses are the real identities -- in which guise some of these characters are also encountered -- of these and (some) other characters revealed.
       Griselda Fleet -- whose husband's gambling problem tore apart her family and has left her in rather dire straits -- and the hapless and also struggling-to-survive Malcolm Kyle are the two public servants running the inquiry, an exile they come to realize is anything but a career-path stepping stone. They try their best, but it's a pretty hopeless undertaking -- until a case falls into their laps that would seem to be exactly the sort of thing Monochrome was meant to investigate, something that happened in Berlin in 1994. Griselda and Malcolm also realize -- and it is soon impressed on them even more -- that this is a very hot potato. Nevertheless, and even with First Desk (and others) playing more interference, they manage to look into this.
       The story then moves back and forth between 'Berlin, Then' and 'London, Now', as we learn what happened some thirty years earlier, the testimony of one of those involved presented mainly in narrative form in relating the Berlin events. She identifies herself as 'Alison North' -- the workname she used in Berlin -- but, of course, that's not her real identity ..... Still very new to the Service, she was tasked by David Cartwright -- "the man who drives the whole shebang" at the time; not a previous First Desk but rather someone whose: "actual job title was obscure, or at least proved impossible to pin down" -- to look into the head of the station in Berlin, Brinsley Miles ("That's his Berlin workname"), who seems to take many liberties in how he runs things -- and spends the Service's money. Alison's lack of experience is meant to lessen the Berlin station's suspicions -- such a newbie surely can't be there to do anything important -- but Miles isn't easily fooled.
       Meanwhile, Max Janáček continues to stir things up as well, as he looks into who might be after him; naturally, the different plotlines converge. It's all deftly woven together, the writing sharp, the pacing -- even with all the switching between past and present -- very well done, the humor adroitly woven in (and only in a few places too forced). For fans of Herron's Slough House-series (Slow Horses), etc.) there are also some amusing echoes and allusions -- not least when the character we recognize as Jackson Lamb (who goes on to head Slough House) complains about the "fuck-ups" in the service and says: "If I had my way, they'd have a department all to themselves. Keep 'em off the streets" (which is, of course, exactly where he winds up).
       Parts of the resolution are a bit far-fetched, but it's still very satisfyingly tied up (complete with the loose ends Herron leaves dangling).
       Herron impressively manages to write both breathless suspense -- beginning with the gripping first chapter as Max Janáček tries to elude those who are after him -- and the tedium of office work, whether around the Monochrome inquiry or Alison doing her cover-work in Berlin, remarkably well; together, it all proceeds and unfolds very nicely, and all makes for a remarkably consistently and thoroughly engaging read.
       The Secret Hours is a first-rate suspense-thriller.

- M.A.Orthofer, 18 November 2023

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The Secret Hours: Reviews: Mick Herron: Other books by Mick Herron under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       British author Mick Herron was born in 1963.

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© 2023 the complete review

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