Slow Horses by Mick Herron

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Paperback review by Annabel

If you’ve not yet encountered Mick Herron, you are in for a treat with Slow Horses. Recently reprinted, it’s the first in a series of British spy novel, but not set in the glam world of TV show Spooks. This branch of MI5, works in a milieu that is much shabbier and is usually terribly boring, 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 them.

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 discover 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.

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 these days, and old skills have to be brought back into play.

It’s good to know that surviving members of the team are back together in the second volume, Dead Lions. and if it is half as good as Slow Horses it’ll be a great read. Mick Herron is a great discovery, and I hope there’s plenty more in the pipeline.

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Annabel is one of the Shiny editors.

Mick Herron, Slow Horses (John Murray, 2016) ISBN 9781473674189, Paperback, 328 pages.

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