A slow starter that soon picks up to thriller speed. (Tip: skip the author’s preface–it belongs at the end.) Slow Horses is a sort of 21st-century behind-the-scenes John LeCarre novel, less about the terrifying kidnapping that jolts MI5 into action than the procedural and political machinery that pits its players against each other. Slough House is where the “slow horses” who screw up spy missions go to trudge in circles for the rest of their weary lives. When a real crisis drops in their path, they throw over the traces faster than you can say Derby. Personalities, talents, and zest blossom; and as these dull characters remember to value themselves, we suddenly have a stake in their success. Jump-cuts between the criminals and their rival sets of pursuers keep the pace zippy. This being a battle of secret service vs. underground vs. news media, no one’s real identity matches the role s/he has been playing. I was sorry when the book ended — and glad the author made good use at the end of his yawn-inducing introduction to Slough House.
This is one of my favorites in the Wolfe canon. Not just because it takes place in the literary world, although I loved time-traveling around the postwar New York publishing scene with author Rex Stout. And not just because it’s always a pleasure to hang out in detective Nero Wolfe’s Manhattan brownstone with the eccentric genius and his right-hand man Archie Goodwin. The plot is satisfyingly intriguing: who’s killing every person who’s read a not particularly controversial manuscript? I especially liked the opening twist: Wolfe’s first visit from his friend and rival Inspector Cramer isn’t a request for help solving murder #1, but to figure out why an odd list of names was found on the scratch pad of a dead law clerk. Any writer will immediately have her/his suspicions; but it takes America’s finest Holmes-Watson duo to piece together the series of clues that will unmask the killer.
An inspired concept — write about a group of contemporary amateur sleuths who are the same demographic as most amateur-sleuth mystery readers. Osman has created a high-end retirement community that’s a 21st-century version of the classic English village; even his title pays homage to the Golden Age mystery that introduced Miss Marple, Agatha Christie’s The Tuesday Club Murders. The characters are distinctive enough to tell apart, charming (or anti-charming) enough to be both likeable and suspicious, and similar enough to the traditional ensemble (the mysterious ex-spy, the logician, the friendly knitter, the garrulous working-class dad, the sharp and not-so-sharp local cops) to keep me laughing and turning pages. Osman is a professional entertainer and very good at it. I admired his acrobatic multiple not-quite-endings, though I didn’t entirely follow them, and I look forward to reading more from him — as well as the probable TV series.