‘Slough House’ by Mick Herron
‘Kill us? They’ve never needed to kill us,’ said Lamb. ‘I mean, look at us. What would be the point?’
A year after a calamitous blunder by the Russian secret service left a British citizen dead from novichok poisoning, Diana Taverner is on the warpath. What seems a gutless response from the government has pushed the Service’s First Desk into mounting her own counter-offensive – but she’s had to make a deal with the devil first. And given that the devil in question is arch-manipulator Peter Judd, she could be about to lose control of everything she’s fought for.
Meanwhile, still reeling from recent losses, the slow horses are worried they’ve been pushed further into the cold. Slough House has been wiped from Service records, and fatal accidents keep happening. No wonder Jackson Lamb’s crew are feeling paranoid. But have they actually been targeted?
With a new populist movement taking a grip on London’s streets, and the old order ensuring that everything’s for sale to the highest bidder, the world’s an uncomfortable place for those deemed surplus to requirements. The wise move would be to find a safe place and wait for the troubles to pass.
But the slow horses aren’t famed for making wise decisions.
I wasn’t having the best of weeks. A family member died of Covid and, you know, 2021 was about as far removed from the joy of 2020 as A to B.
To compound my joy, I was revisiting an old novel I had begun years ago to see if there was anything there.
There wasn’t. I gave up. Then I opened ‘Slough House’.
This confirmed two things for me: I have the same talent in my entire body as Mick Herron has in a clipped toenail and I should abandon writing prose forever. Immediately.
And that good writing – the really good, exceptionally paced, the stuff described and as winningly put together as this, will offer an escape from grief and lack of talent in a way we should cling to like a life raft.
Because, by God, he’s good.
It didn’t take long for me to be laughing – not something I expected on that day, I don’t mind admitting.
‘Slough House’ begins, after the Prologue, with the traditional disembodied guided tour of our favourite, dilapidated office building. It’s been a wind, a cat and now it’s a rat – sorry, an estate agent, (even worse.)
“Authentic period detail there, and the seventies is a decade that’s coming back, isn’t it, what with the riots, the recession, the racism – ha! Our little joke. But no, really.”
When we lost the Maestro at the fag end of last year, Herron’s name came up quite a bit. I’ve had my say on Le Carré elsewhere and my abiding love for the work but one of the irritations I find is the constant repetition in some circles citing Herron as the new Le Carré.
He’s the current Herron and we better embrace him now because he’s to be savoured and enjoyed while he’s on the go.
Le Carré, Lord knows no stranger to anger at politicians or lacking cynicism, never wrote a sentence like “This was the spook trade, and when things went awry on Spook Street, they generally went the full Chris Grayling.”
But you just know he’d have liked to.
He’s not the new Le Carré, despite the terminology of his own making and the Connie-like Molly in the Archives. He’s the current Herron and we better embrace him now because he’s to be savoured.
I say “savoured” but I’m, well, lying.
I last read one of the Slow Horse novels, ‘Joe Country’, in May 2019 and I should have done my due diligence before starting this one.
But I’m a glutton for Herron and so I had to sheepishly beg Slow Horse expert – owner of honeyed tones and producer of Slough House podcast ‘Barbican Station’ extraordinaire, Jeff Quest- to remind me who had died and how because I’d lost track.
In my defence, prose like:
‘But she deserved to die. Even Gandhi would admit that.’
‘Did it never occur to you that for a supposed backwater of the Security Service, we suffer a lot of fatalities?’
‘I’ve always assumed that was down to public demand.’
Prose like that is so good it needs to be gulped down.
And so what does this instalment of the series bring? Sort of everything you want. Jackson Lamb is still a big man with a foul mouth and an odd imperviousness to HR complaints.
Di Tavernier is exactly as evil as you hope. Peter Judd is as duplicitous, sleazy and so toned down compared to real world politicians he’s almost preferable.
Satire? “The paths to power of current world leaders – paths including conspiracy to assault, knee-jerk racism, indeterminate fecundity and cheating at golf – were so askew from the traditional routes that only an idiot would have dared forecast future developments.” Check.
This time, it’s not just Slough House which has come to life. Even the other buildings in the area are personified and living in petrified fear. “Down here, a few timid retail premises huddled; the kind that looked like they’d not survive ten minutes in the open air.”
Mick Herron is about to go stratospheric. He’s already part of a dominating duopoly of the finest spy writers around alongside Charles Cumming. In my opinion, they will soon to be joined by Simon Conway, whose novel ‘The Stranger’ was hands down the best novel I read in 2020 (including Cumming’s exceptionally strong ‘Box 88’)
But as soon as Gary Oldman dons the dirty mac of Lamb for Apple TVs adaptation, he’s going to reach a new audience. With that will come the petty jealousies, the hatchet the reviews, the constant nagging that he’s not as good as he was.
Well, if this novel proves anything, it is that he is. At one stage, the narrator says: “‘Make it, don’t fake it’ was Channel Go’s mission statement, unless it was its mantra, or its logo. But its general thrust was to encourage choleric rage in its viewers, so, if nothing else, Cantor had tapped into the spirit of the times.”
As had Cantor, so too has Herron. And long may he continue to do so.
‘Slough House’ is available for purchase from 4th February 2021 https://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/1529378664/ref=bseries_primary_0_1529378664