This is What Happened by Mick Herron is, in a way, two books in one and that is not a good thing. The story opens with a taut, suspenseful bit of espionage. Everywomen Maggie Barnes has been recruited by MI-5 to install something on a computer where she works in the mailroom–a low profile job that gives her access to every floor. She’s amazing, she extemporizes and saves herself when things go wrong, she keeps calm and collected. This is the story I expected to read from descriptions of the book and boy, it delivered right from the first page.
However, that Maggie is gone by the next time we connect with her two years in the future. It was not surprising, though, the clues were there from the beginning. It is fair and maybe even credible.
I felt betrayed by this book. I was looking forward to Maggie coming into her own, enjoying this new self who figured out how to escape after being caught, who didn’t panic when she lost a vital element of her mission and risked her life for her country, who took her chance to be a hero. Even though I saw the twist coming so I can’t complain it was unfair, I still was upset. Frankly, the first story is fresher than the twist. The twist is tired.
To be fair, it is suspenseful. I also enjoyed Herron’s sometimes wry examination of idioms. For example, the idiom “to a degree” where Herron reminds us that working to a degree is less impressive if we remember there are 360 of them. I actually laughed out loud when a character responds to someone saying “doors would open” by remarking that person hadn’t gotten through very many despite being nearly fifty years old. These sly, gimlet-eyed skewering of cliches were the best thing about the book. I loved them and they do make me want to read more by Mick Herron.
Herron also showed how someone can just wonder, speculate, and daydream themselves into evil, even into murder. How simply shopping can become persuasive, how if you really want to do something, the soapbox speaker and the butcher, baker, and candlestick maker can all give you ideas and reasons to do what you really want to do. I saw real insight and humor in that.
But none of it overcomes my profound disappointment when the story jumps from the exciting bit of espionage to the Maggie two years later. Even if it was not completely unexpected, it still made me sad.
I received an e-galley of This is What Happened from the publisher through Edelweiss.