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Like many spy novels, the books in Mick Herron’s Slough House series begin with action scenes: a brutal assault on a village, an MI5 agent chasing a suicide bomber through an airport. But as die-hard Slough House fans know, these bursts of excitement are just preludes to the real opener: Herron’s sinuous descriptions of Slough House itself, in each book following a different entity—a stray cat, radiator steam, the dawn’s early light—as it travels through the squalid, grimy, godforsaken offices. This unlikely establishment, where “everything is yellow or grey, and either broken or mended,” is the epicenter of one of the most addictive espionage series going.
Now that series, which starts with Slow Horses, is the basis for Apple’s new TV series of the same name, a faithful, highly entertaining production with Gary Oldman, Kristin Scott Thomas, and Jonathan Pryce leading a top-drawer cast that’s amusingly at odds with the bottom-drawer status of Slough House itself. Herron’s is a new and very welcome flavor of spy fiction, grouchy and funny, in keeping with our muddled times. Let the TV series lure you up the grubby back stairs of Slough House, and you’ll have seven (soon to be eight) crackerjack novels to keep you going until Season 2.
If James Bond is a fantasy of British intelligence still coasting on the uncomplicated glamour of having helped win World War II, and John le Carré’s George Smiley offers the corrective vision of Cold War moral ambiguity, Herron’s Slow Horses are Gen X spies: sidelined, bored, saddled with the worst boss in the world. His name is Jackson Lamb (splendidly played by Gary Oldman in the TV series), and he’s abusive, slovenly, and extravagantly flatulent. Lamb presides over an outpost of MI5 that is “not in Slough, nor is it a house,” but naming it after the town west of London to whose dullness John Betjeman once devoted an entire poem is fitting. American readers may recognize Slough as the setting for the British version of The Office, and a simple, high-concept summary of the series is Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy meets The Office.
Slough House is located on London’s Aldersgate Street near the Barbican Tube station, a site Herron has described so precisely that a fan pinpointed the exact address, which was later used in location shooting for the TV series. It’s the place where the British intelligence service sends its washed-out or malfunctioning agents when it can’t easily fire them. The motley crew under Lamb includes a gambling addict, a guy who once left a top-secret file on the bus, a woman with anger management issues for whom cocaine use is “a weekend thing … strictly Thursday to Tuesday,” and an IT guy so obnoxious no other office would have him. We first encounter Jackson Lamb’s shabby domain through the eyes of River Cartwright, a young eager beaver who’s been transferred because he spectacularly blew a training exercise and shut down Kings Cross station. Everyone at Slough House except Lamb dreams of getting back to Regent’s Park, the glitteringly modern headquarters of MI5, although none of the “slow horses,” as they’re nicknamed by their fellow spies, has ever managed it.
One of the pleasures of these gobbleable books is Herron’s intricate plotting, full of twists like the two gunshots near the conclusion of Spook Street that made me laugh out loud at his dark audacity. Herron can certainly write a real spy story, with all the misdirection and sleight of hand that requires. But it’s the surly Slough House mood, the eccentric characters, and Herron’s very black, very dry sense of humor that made me read one after the other without a break. Le Carré’s characters witnessed the collapse of good into bad (if the two had ever been truly separate) under the expedience of superpower politics and bureaucratic self-interest. For Herron’s spooks, there is almost no enemy to become confused with. The roots of the crises the slow horses face often come down to MI5 leadership trying to be too clever by half, or old unfinished Cold War business returning to bite the service in the ass. To them, the Cold War looks a lot like the good old days, filled with purpose, cunning, and derring-do. River in particular, whose grandfather’s status as an espionage legend is the only thing that kept him from getting the sack, idolizes those days. From boyhood, he sat at his grandfather’s feet listening to stories about British spies employing tradecraft to outwit their Soviet counterparts. River “wished he’d been alive then. Had had a part to play.” As a result, he’s always dashing off half-cocked after bad guys or chasing down leads like the action hero he so badly wants to be. The problem is River’s hands-on approach tends to backfire about 80 percent of the time.
Lamb himself is a veteran of the Cold War battles, and Slough House den mother Catherine Standish believes that “when they’d pulled the Wall down he’d built himself another, and had been living behind it ever since.” Those in a position to know occasionally allude to the fact that Lamb has seen things, endured things, done things that the slow horses themselves can barely imagine. He may look and act like a lumbering, cholesterol-choked pig, but nobody gets the drop on him. “Nothing in his physical appearance,” Herron writes, “suggested Lamb could move quickly, but something about his presence suggested you’d be unwise to dismiss the possibility.”
It’s this sullen posture of living under the shadow of a previous generation that gives the Slough House series its Gen X vibe. That, and Herron’s keen attention to the aggravations and doldrums of a mediocre work life, which bears a startling resemblance to the office culture in Douglas Coupland’s seminal 1991 novel, Generation X. In the opening tour of Slough House in 2016’s Real Tigers, Herron writes of the place, “The only reason for the absence of a sign requiring entrants to abandon all hope is that, as every office worker knows, it’s not the hope that kills you. It’s knowing it’s the hope that kills you that kills you.” The slow horses drown in paperwork, bicker over tea bags, cup their hands around fragile flirtations, and lie to each other to make their personal lives sound less pathetic.
The series itself started out as an underdog. Slow Horses was published in the U.K. in 2010, but didn’t sell well enough for Herron’s original publisher to buy the following two novels, which were at first only published in the U.S. by Soho Press. The second novel in the series, Dead Lions, won an award from the Crime Writers’ Association, but it was only in 2015, after a determined British editor gave the series another shot and stuck with it, that Herron finally won a wide audience in his homeland and was able to quit his day job as sub-editor on a legal journal.
But in the universe of Slough House, a spot at the top is far from comfy. While the slow horses grumble and yawn, at Regent’s Park, their higher-ups scheme and backstab. In the place of an opposing foreign power the series has as its abiding antagonist Diana “Lady Di” Taverner, “Second Desk” at MI5. Elegant and steely and born to be played by Kristin Scott Thomas, Taverner is forever conniving with assorted politicians, journalists, and apparatchiks to get to “First Desk.” This gives Herron the opportunity to flaunt his blood-drawing satires of such risible British figures as Boris Johnson, Nigel Farage, and Michael Gove. The supreme achievement among these is the Johnsonian home secretary Peter Judd, whose mediagenic persona as a “lovable scamp” conceals his opinion that
the public was like one of those huge Pacific jellyfish; one enormous, pulsating mass of indifference, drifting wherever the current carried it; an organism without a motive, ambition or original sin to call its own, but which somehow believed, in whatever passed for its brain, that it chose its own leaders and had a say in its own destiny.
With Judd on the rise, Taverner’s superior, a bewigged Machiavellian named Dame Ingrid Tearney, is forced to conclude that “the greatest threat to the Service—and her own role within it—seemed to be emanating from the Home Secretary rather than its more traditional enemies: terrorists, rival security agencies, the Guardian.”
No Slough House novel would be complete without a meeting between Lamb and Taverner on a Thames-side bench, where the two face off and play hardball, each one leveraging whatever they have on the other for maximum advantage. If Jackson Lamb has a virtue—and it’s a tough slog searching for it; these novels are not for the tender sensibilities of those who require “likable” characters—it’s that he refuses to abandon his “joes,” which is what Herron’s characters call agents in the field. (And maybe what actual intelligence professionals call them? But my impression is that most espionage novelists make up their own spy lingo.) The TV series makes the most of these atmospheric meetings, and in one episode Taverner asks Lamb, “You care about them, don’t you?” She’s looking for a chink in his armor, but Lamb replies, “No, I think they’re a bunch of fucking losers.” Oldman, unsmiling, adds, “But they’re my losers.”
Exactly how Slough House sustains its reputation as a posting where nothing ever happens has become a bit of a puzzle seven novels into the series. (The eighth Slough House novel, Bad Actors, will be published in May.) Most of the books climax with the slow horses dragged into action, fending off assassins, shooting it out with mercenaries in a library, confronting a Russian gangster on the roof of a skyscraper. For a day or two, they get to act like the kind of spies River wants to be, and not all of them emerge unscathed. Fair warning for those joining us lately as a result of Apple’s excellent adaptation: Herron isn’t afraid to kill off your favorites. As Lamb points out, there are always more screw-ups incoming.