Slow Horses by Mick Herron

Reviewed by Annabel.

slow-horsesThe world has only finally woken up to the spy and noir novels of Mick Herron, despite his winning the 2013 CWA Gold Dagger for Dead Lions, the sequel to Slow Horses.  With the paperback issue of the third in the ‘Jackson Lamb’ series due later this month, John Murray are reissuing all three in new liveries.

This series of British spy novels are not set in the glam world of TV show Spooks with its high tech offices in Thames House in the middle of the City of London. Herron’s branch of MI5 works in a world that is much shabbier and is usually terribly boring (and probably very realistic), for Slough House, which in spook-speak becomes ‘Slow Horse’ is a nondescript building in London where disgraced agents get sent to work. River Cartwright is one of the slow horses.

The book starts with the event that got River his demotion. It wasn’t even a real emergency; it was his assessment exercise – but carried out in the real world at Kings Cross station & underground. It’s his job to find the suspected terrorist before the station is theoretically blown-up.  They find the target and take him down to find it’s just a member of the public. Before he knows it the whole station goes into a security alert.

He shouted into his button. ‘Spider? You idiot, you called the wrong colours!’
‘What the hell’s happening? There are crowds coming out of every-‘
‘White tee under a blue shirt. That’s what you said.’
‘No, I said blue tee under -‘
‘Fuck you, Spider.’ River yanked his earpiece out.

So River is sent to work with the slow horses. A bunch of secret service no-hopers. Over the course of the novel, we’ll get to know some of them and what they did to end up in this dead-end job. Others won’t survive – as mayhem ensues when the British nephew of a prominent Pakistani minister is kidnapped by some nationalist thugs who threaten to execute him in forty-eight hours.  Thanks to an errand that Jackson Lamb, the boss of Slough House, sends River on, he reckons he has an idea of how to start finding the young man – and get the slow horses reinstated.

It’s a tricky game though – the usual Moscow rules as they call them don’t apply.  ‘If Moscow Rules meant watch your back, then London Rules meant cover your arse.‘  It soon becomes clear that people are being played against each other, that various factions within MI5 are involved. Lamb, Cartwright and the team must play the game to come out winners.  It’s convoluted and dirty and people will get hurt.

The relationship between Lamb and Cartwright reminded me quite a lot of George Smiley and his sidekick Peter Gwillam from Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. Lamb is the one who holds all the cards close to his chest; Cartwright is the eager younger agent ready for action. However Lamb is no Smiley – he’s terribly fat, yet light on his feet. He is also always eating and has one additional weapon in his armoury – his farts! In comparison, River is nondescript – most of the other slow horses are more interesting than him, but as a young and fit man he is there for the action and to look handsome.

River may lead the action in this novel, but Lamb, as leader of this motley bunch of agents, has the ear of higher-placed managers in the service. The subtext is that they recognise the Slow Horses of Slough House are useful, as these agents’ sense of being punished can be used to keep them keen when a job comes along that needs someone outside the circus to do the work.

The author has come up with a truly labyrinthine plot with many layers of players and internal politics for them to unravel, let alone getting into the minds of the kidnappers. It’s certainly worthy of comparison to Le Carré, and all horribly plausible too! There’s plenty of tradecraft deployed throughout which gives that authentic feel (as if we’d really know how it’s done!), and I loved all the secret service slang. On top of all that though is a sense of humour – subtle at times, less so at others. One thing about the Slow Horses is that they’re not used to working together as a team, and old skills have to be brought back into play.

If you’ve not discovered Mick Herron yet, here’s where to start. I can happily report that the sequels are every bit as good and are just crying out to be televised. Fingers crossed.

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Annabel is one of the editors of Shiny New Books, and could envisage becoming a spook – not really – but she loves reading about them.

Mick Herron, Slow Horses (John Murray, 2016). 978-1473641105, 352pp., paperback.

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