When Covid-19 emerged, my reading choices veered sharply to factual. I trained as an epidemiologist. Now, here was the disaster I’d been taught was inevitable. I pored over scientific papers about the new virus, trying to understand what was happening, as did my friend Peter whom I met at graduate school in Seattle, 30-something years ago. We began emailing each other critiques of public health responses to the pandemic, Peter from California where he’d retired, me from the Central Victorian bush. Peter approached the task with rigour, reviewing the modelling and preparing a summary ‘memo’ for me and his many other friends around the world.
Peter is meticulous in other respects too. He develops professional-level expertise at all his many hobbies, one of which is astronomy. So, as winter came, the stars at their twinkliest and Victoria locked down for a second time, I turned to Peter when I decided to buy a telescope. His advice: when you embark on a new hobby, read a good book before you start buying stuff. He recommended The Backyard Astronomer’s Guide by Terence Dickinson and Alan Dyer. They suggest keeping it simple to start. Sit outside with a star chart and get to know the sky, they advise. Or lie in your yard on a child’s inflatable boat and ‘sail the celestial skies’ with the aid of binoculars.
I went with a chair on my deck. From there I have a panoramic view of the southern sky. In my Backyard Guide, I read that the centre of the Milky Way, our galaxy, is located between Sagittarius and Scorpius. These constellations were right in front of me and my deck chair in July, and I managed to convince myself that the particularly dense, spectacular mass of stars I could see through my binoculars was the galactic core.
Dickinson and Dyer portray amateur astronomers as a fun crowd. There are photographs of ‘star parties’, where these folks get together in a paddock at a dark sky site, set up their telescopes and spend the night observing. ‘Happiness is a new eyepiece’ (for your telescope) the caption of one photo reads.
I felt the urge to begin buying equipment and chose a telescope from Dickinson and Dyer’s recommendations for those ‘getting started’. But when the pandemic hit, astronomy became a thing, and my selection turned out to be on back-order. It was spring when it finally arrived, and we remained in lockdown. Even star parties in paddocks were still banned, so I set up my new toy on the deck. Through its tiny eyepiece the Milky Way came into focus to reveal hundreds more stars than I could see with my binoculars, stars thousands of light-years away that will take me decades of star-hopping to identify, another task for which the Backyard Guide has instructions.
As enlightening and comforting as both astronomy and a good book can be, when the four-month lockdown ended, soon after my telescope arrived, I was looking forward to evenings spent further afield than my deck or couch. Also, to dressing in something other than the thermals necessary for star-gazing outside, even if my ‘going out’ clothes still needed to have an elastic waist band. Those plans were upended during my first post-lockdown visit to the park. My two dogs, one an exuberant ‘Covid puppy’, the other an eight-year-old labradoodle who should be better behaved, saw something they weren’t accustomed to: a group of humans, sitting under a tree! The dogs made a dash for this novel phenomenon, wrapping their leads around my left leg, twisting me around and then down to the ground. I heard my ankle bone snap.
I needed a pile of good books to distract me from the pain and keep me company during the recuperation. Mick Herron’s Slough House series fitted the bill. Its subject is a group of spies who’ve fallen foul of their employer, ‘the Service’, a fictional version of MI5. Their sins range from accidentally leaving a top-secret computer disk on the train, to crashing King’s Cross station during a training operation, alcoholism, cocaine addiction and being terminally unlikeable. Dismissing them from the service would be a human resources nightmare, so they’ve been banished to Slough House, a rundown building in an undesirable London neighbourhood, where they’re dubbed the ‘Slow Horses’ and given mind-numbing desk-based tasks in the hope that they’ll resign, which they don’t.
Instead, the Slow Horses embark on dangerous missions for which they’re ill-equipped: typically, they lack a gun, or there’s one gun that must be shared around. Sometimes, bored and desperate to redeem themselves, they initiate these ops. Other times, they’re sent into the field by Jackson Lamb, their boss, a permanently inebriated, foul-mouthed, flatulent washed-up spy, who treats his staff with disdain, except when they’re in danger. Then, they’re his Joes. Lamb does all he can to save a Joe in danger, but frequently that’s not enough.
Herron’s intricate plots address many of the issues of our time: terrorism, populism, the post–Cold-War Cold War, the privatisation of public institutions. Yes, even MI5 is not immune from the latter. The head of the service, the duplicitous ‘Lady Di’ Taverner succumbs to the temptation of corporate sponsorship.
When John le Carré died last year, tributes mentioned Mick Herron as his obvious successor, and I now understand why. Herron’s prose is witty yet spare, except when he indulges his inner poet and, for example, treats readers to a lyrical room-by-room description of Slough House and its occupants, from the perspective of a mouse. I would have enjoyed and admired the Slough House series any time but reading it while resting with my foot propped up and listening to the audiobook version while walking rehabilitation laps in the pool, I felt an affinity with the Slow Horses who are also serving time after screwing up.
Soon, I’ve finished the seven-book series and I’m casting around for new reading material. Peter, who writes a review of every book he reads, emails his glowing assessment of Michael Lewis’ The Premonition, the true story of a group of doctors and scientists who tried to persuade the US government to respond to the pandemic rationally, humanely, and efficiently. I’m a fan of Lewis’ writing, especially The Big Short, his book on the 2008 financial crisis. But I’m not keen to read any more about how badly the US handled the pandemic. Peter suggests I at least listen to the New York Times writer Ezra Klein’s podcast with Lewis. At the end of the interview, Lewis recommends three books, one of which is Young Men and Fire. And with that my reading takes a new direction.
Young Men and Fire is Norman Mclean’s non-fiction account of a 1949 fire in a wilderness area of Montana. Thirteen men died. Known as smokejumpers, they’d been parachuted in to fight the fire. It had looked routine from the air, but enlarged when the wind changed direction, becoming what firefighters call a blow up. Only three of the smokejumper crew survived.
McLean began investigating the tragedy more than twenty years later, after he retired from teaching poetry and Shakespeare at the University of Chicago. He teamed up with a Forest service employee and visited the fire site, once with the two remaining survivors. It’s a brilliant book. The descriptions of the fire and the men’s deaths, which McLean returns to again and again, are strikingly vivid, yet not so gruesome that I turn away. A key question that McLean examines, also again and again, is whether the men were killed by the backfire that their foreman lit to protect himself and the crew. Mclean’s investigations lead him to consult mathematicians whose technical modelling of the fire McLean manages to make not just readable but suspenseful.
Young Men and Fire, Norman McLean’s second book, was published posthumously. His first, A River Runs Through It, although much acclaimed, somehow escaped my attention. Now I have that to look forward to. And there is more. Last week, it was announced that a new le Carré novel, finished before his death, will be published in October. I’ve already pressed the pre-order button.
Susan Hurley is the author of the medical thriller Eight Lives, which won the 2020 Davitt Award for Best Debut Crime Book and was shortlisted for the Ned Kelly Award for Best Debut Crime Fiction and the UK Caledonia Novel Award.