Bumbling spies thrive on chaos in ‘Bad Actors’; ‘Breathless’ adventure soars – Sun Sentinel

‘Bad Actors’ by Mick Herron. Soho Crime, 360 pages, $27.95

Bad actors abound in Mick Herron’s engaging espionage series that revolves around Slough House headquarters. These British spies aren’t high-powered, adrenaline-seeking undercover agents out to save the world.

Instead, these are the washouts and bumblers, the spies who’ve messed up so badly they’ve put colleagues and national secrets in danger.

It wasn’t always like this. Once they were “would-be stars of the British security service.” Nicknamed “Slow Horses,” this motley group would never be mistaken for James Bond, but they could easily be compared with the paper sales staff of “The Office.”

“Bad Actors,” Herron’s eighth insightful outing in the world of these Slow Horses, centers on the disappearance of Sophie de Greer, a “superforecaster” able to predict voter reactions to government policies. It is possible that Sophie may be working for the Russians; it is also possible she has been kidnapped or just decided to take some time to herself.

Whatever, her vanishing has the attention of Anthony Sparrow, the prime minister’s violent and creepy “enforcer.” He hired Sophie and would be professionally embarrassed if she is a Russian plant. Diane Taverner, MI5′s assertive chief, also is interested as Sophie’s Russian ties — if they are true — might be blamed on her.

While their superiors consider them incompetents toiling in “the fleapit” of Regent’s Park, the Slough House team thrives on chaos and uncovering the truth.

Herron mixes dry humor, musings on British and global politics, and superbly developed characters who’ve learned to “embrace unfulfillment and boredom; to look back in disappointment; stare round in dismay.” Herron’s skillful storytelling thrives on his deliberate, methodical plotting showcased in “Bad Actors.” It’s often hard to tell who are the good guys and who are the bad as each side thinks they are on the side of right.

Herron’s series has now been adapted for Apple TV. The first six-episode season debuted in April, starring Gary Oldman, Jonathan Pryce and Kristin Scott Thomas — not a bad actor in that cast.

‘Breathless’ by Amy McCulloch. Anchor, 368 pages, $28

Children’s and young adult author Amy McCulloch takes her storytelling skills to new heights — literally— in her first foray into adult mysteries in this gripping novel set in the world of extreme mountain climbing against the vivid background of the Himalayas.

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“Breathless” quickly evolves into an intense look at the power and cruelty of nature and the ruthlessness of humans while showing that no matter how hard we try, people cannot conquer nature.

“Breathless” revolves around adventure travel journalist Cecily Wong, who is hoping to launch her career with a landmark interview with climber Charles McVeigh, who is poised to become “legendary” as the only person to have climbed the 14 summits above 26,000 feet in one year without ropes or supplemental oxygen. It’s a feat unprecedented as most mountaineers climbed “expedition, or ‘siege,’ style,” using every advantage possible, from equipment to sherpas to go up and down mountains safely. The last summit on Charles’ list is the Nepalese peak Manaslu, the world’s eighth-highest mountain.

The charismatic — and arrogant — Charles has agreed to the interview only if Cecily makes the climb all the way to the top with him and his team. But Cecily is a novice climber, at best, “best known for not summiting mountains.”

The grueling climb begins normally, but what seems to be an accidental death is followed by a suspicious death. It soon becomes apparent that one of seven on Charles’ team — all of whom are strangers — is a killer.

“Breathless” is an adventure story and a coming-of-age tale. Cecily must overcome her fears to discover an inner strength she didn’t know she had. She knows her future is riding on this climb and her article, but even that might not be enough to propel her up Manaslu. Her personality is strong enough to build a series around.

McCulloch’s sharp storytelling suits up the readers, puts gear in their hands and leads them up the mountain with its thin air — above 26,000 feet the altitude known as the “death zone.” McCulloch shows the breathtaking vistas, yawning crevasses and steep drops. This is armchair adventure at its best.

Oline H. Cogdill can be reached at olinecog@aol.com.

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