Grim story of grief, betrayal and brutality wrapped in lyrical prose that sits like Chrismas Tree Lights on a barbed-wire fence.
“Nobody Walks” is a stand-alone novel, set in the same universe as Mick Herron’s Slough House books, contemporary British spy novels that tell the story of Slow Horses, spook screw-ups, who get dumped into Slough House where they’re forced to do nugatory work designed to push them into resigning.
“Nobody Walks”, tells the story of Tom Bettany, a retired spy who walked away from London years earlier but who returns to England to investigate the death of his estranged son. The investigation gets him involved with the eccentric owner of the computer games company his son worked for, drug-dealers carving a niche in London with a new drug that seems to have contributed to the death of Bettany’s son and Bettany’s former employer, Dame Ingrid Tearney, head of MI5, who has an agenda of her own.
This is a powerfully written book that stinks of despair from the first page.
Bettany is a broken man, going through the motions of living and even then only allowing himself an anonymous, spartan, friendless, hopeless life as an itinerant meatpacker at a French slaughterhouse. His past is filled with pain. His present is as numb as he can make it. His future is not something he has any belief in or concern with.
His return to London forces him to confront the violent man he became in his former job and wonder if he is capable of being anything other than a weapon, pointed by someone else.
The descriptions of Betany’s inner thoughts and of the environment around him are often lyrical and original. They are beautiful in their own way but their real purpose is to emphasise the bleakness of the book, the moral bankruptcy of the people in it and to deepen the impact of Bettany’s brutal, relentless pursuit of revenge.
The title, “Nobody Walks”, captures the fatalistic spirit of the book. There are no happy endings, no search for closure, no hope of redemption, not even an expectation of survival. There is only whatever it is that Bettany needs to do next to get what he wants.
Yet this isn’t some Charles Bronson “Death Wish” reboot. Bettany is not some vigilante, leaving a trail of bodies behind. He’s a broken man being used by various people in devious ways to meet their goals. He has little control, less insight and no hope. The book is an exploration of Bettany’s character and his choices.
As usual, the dialogue is brisk, sometimes witty and always believable. The storytelling is full of unexpected twists and the pacing maximises the tension.
I found the book grim but compelling. I wasn’t cheering for Bettany but I did understand him.
There’s no direct Slough House involvement in the story but fans of the series do get the bonus of knowing the backstory of future slow horse, J.K. Coe.
The audiobook is read by Sean Barrett, who narrates the Slough House books. I admired the skill with which he adapted his style for this book, delivering something harde- edged and more tense than in the other books.