Slow Horses; Dead Lions; Real Tigers; Spook Street; London Rules; Joe Country; Slough House
By Mick Herron
ALL POSTS CONTAIN SPOILERS
I wanted to write about each of these novels individually. That was my intention: to read one, write about it, and then read the next one. I had planned to get at least three, maybe five, posts out of my Slough House box set (which ends at ‘Slough House’; another novel, ‘Bad Actors’, has been published since but I have not read it).
That is not what happened. What happened was, I read ‘Slow Horses’, and then, instead of writing about it, I immediately (as in right away, instantly, without taking a break or getting a drink of water or peeing) got up off my couch, went and retrieved the next novel in the series, sat back down on my couch, and went back to reading.
I’m not really exaggerating: I started reading ‘Slow Horses’ last Monday – I finished ‘Slough House’ yesterday. That’s basically a book per day, and, no, I am not unemployed and, no, I do not live alone and, yes, I did happen to have a friend staying with me this weekend.
The Slough House novels have been adapted into a television show, which is how I heard of them. Aside from that, I don’t actually know how famous they are. Mick Herron’s Wikipedia page has a daunting list of awards and nominations, but no one I’ve talked to about them has ever heard of these books.
Which is a shame, because they’re incredible. For those who aren’t familiar with the premise: Slough House is a rundown London row house which serves as a punishment detail for MI5 operatives who have fucked up too seriously to be trusted but who cannot, for whatever reason, be fired. The unit, which is run by an abusive ex-Cold Warrior named Jackson Lamb, is designed to slowly grind down the spirits of the disgraced operatives until they quit of their own volition. Despite the fact that they aren’t actually allowed to do fieldwork, the slow horses (as they are known to the rest of the service) nevertheless manage to involve themselves in nefarious goings-on at least once per book.
If it sounds light-hearted and whimsical, it’s not. The Slough House books are dark, violent, and cynical. I’ll warn you upfront: at least one slow horse dies per novel, and it’s not always the ones you’d expect (or hope). The plots are legit: Slough House isn’t the Jeeves and Wooster of spy novels, no low-stakes kitten-in-a-tree plots here. Each novel is propelled forward by a complicated and dangerous conspiracy; the stories are intricate, surprising, and always just plausible enough to be absorbing.
So whimsical, no. Funny, yes. ‘Laugh out loud’ has become an unfortunate cliche, but I’m going to use it in its technical sense here: I laughed, out loud, multiple times during each and every Slough House novel. Most (but not all) of the heavy lifting in the humor regard is done by Jackson Lamb, who is the beating heart of the series and who’s particular brand of flagrant, inventive cruelty is, unfortunately, hilarious.
In my opinion, most genre works are lopsided. The good ones tend to have significant strengths but also (very) significant deficiencies. Usually, genre novels are plot-heavy: great stories with mediocre writing and flimsy characters. Sometimes, less commonly, it’s the characters that are really wonderful and the plots are weaker. But even among the Greats, there are very few novels that are well-plotted, well-written, and well-charactered (‘Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy’? ‘The Third Man’?).
Well, add Mick Herron to the short list. Most reviews I’ve seen of Herron’s work focus on the excellent premise and captivating plots, but Herron is a good writer. His prose is versatile: he can move easily from snappy dialogue to suspenseful action sequences to cinematic melancholy rapidly and convincingly (one of my favorite parts of the series, one which particularly stands out if you read them all at once, is Herron’s High Literary framing of each story: he opens and closes each novel with a semi-poetic tour of Slough House itself).
There’s a lot to love about these novels; it would have been nice to be able to write about them in several installments in order to do them justice. For example, Herron does a beautiful job balancing between internal and external enemies. Yes, sure, there are the usual bad guys of spy dramas in here: extremists and Russians absolutely make their presence felt. On the other hand, the most salient villains are usually British: white nationalists, corrupt politicians, and unscrupulous Service bureaucrats do more damage than any extra-nationalist.
Or there is the very clever pseudonymous weaving into the text of current events: Brexit occurs partway through the novels, and several populist buffoons are featured largely (one with thatchy blond hair). The plot of one novel involves a conspiracy to hide the bad behavior of a certain unnamed royal, a son of the Queen with a penchant for young prostitutes – sound like anyone we know?
And then there is Jackson Lamb himself. Lamb is something of a masterpiece. He is a monument of perverse charisma: too brilliant to be thoroughly repellant, but too repellant to be heroic. He’s unwashed, flatulent, performatively racist, and alcoholic but he nevertheless manages to keep a tight grip on the reader’s…not sympathy, exactly, but good will. He gives the distinct impression of having a good heart, but since he never actually shows it, the reader must take it on faith. If Lamb had tilted by even the slightest degree toward either sympathy or villainy, the Slough Houses novels wouldn’t have worked. As it is, the series runs along fueled in no small part by the readers’ love for Jackson Lamb and by his stalwart refusal to deserve it.
In fact, almost all of the slow horses share with Lamb this winning ambivalence as protagonists. Herron did something really smart with his cast of fuck-ups: he made them actual fuck-ups. Yes, the Slough House novels have a rooting-for-the-underdogs quality to them, but these aren’t the feel-good antics of, say, a youth hockey team full of misfits. Some of the slow horses are, in fact, victims of misfortune, but they are all handicapped in some way by their own behaviors: none of them is a stellar super spy in the wrong place. Nevertheless, while each in some sense deserves the opprobrium they have earned (yes, even River Cartwright, who lands in Slough House through the deceptive malice of a friend but who will then spend the rest of the series dashing off impulsively at every opportunity and who cannot work functionally with anyone else), each is also somehow sympathetic to the reader. To paraphrase Jackson Lamb, they are all fuck ups, but they are our fuck ups, and it’s impossible not to root for them.
It is possible, I believe, to love a book as truly as you might love a person. And when you fall in love, with book or person, there is always a moment of stunned dazzlement, when love and the knowledge of love arrive at once and knock you upside the head. I write now from that state: I loved these books. I loved them. I’m crazy about them – I think everyone should read them, right now. I loved them so much I don’t want to watch the series, because Slough House is perfect to me the way it is, and I don’t want anything to contaminate it in my mind. And I don’t want to read anything else, not yet. I just want to sit a little longer, here, in Slough House, in love.