Bad Actors? Great Script

‘Bad Actors’ by Mick Herron

POLITICS IS A DANGEROUS GAME


In MI5 a scandal is brewing and there are bad actors everywhere.

A key member of a Downing Street think-tank has disappeared without a trace. Claude Whelan, one-time First Desk of MI5’s Regent’s Park, is tasked with tracking her down. But the trail leads straight back to Regent’s Park HQ itself, with its chief, Diana Taverner, as prime suspect. Meanwhile her Russian counterpart has unexpectedly shown up in London but has slipped under MI5’s radar.

Over at Slough House, the home for demoted and embittered spies, the slow horses are doing what they do best: adding a little bit of chaos to an already unstable situation.

In a world where lying, cheating and backstabbing is the norm, bad actors are bending the rules for their own gain. If the slow horses want to change the script, they’ll need to get their own act together before the final curtain. (Synopsis courtesy of Hachette)

Let’s be clear: Mick Herron is not the first writer to notice the similarities between actors and politicians. Indeed, the peerless Yes Prime Minister included this little interchange:

Sir Humphrey Appleby: You know what happens when politicians get into Number 10; they want to take their place on the world stage.

Sir Richard Wharton: People on stages are called actors. All they are required to do is look plausible, stay sober, and say the lines they’re given in the right order.

Appleby: Some of them try to make up their own lines.

Wharton: They don’t last long.

Now, regular readers of Herron would shudder if a phrase like “they don’t last long,” because few if any characters in his work do last long and the more beloved, the more in danger they are. You have been warned.

I suspect that the literati are coming for Herron. He’s just too good to be allowed to continue without snark and insults from lesser writers. Having a high budget adaptation of your work, one so faithful as to appear slavish, starring two of the best actors in the UK today (Gary Oldman, Kristin Scott-Thomas) as well as supporting characters played by top quality talent like Saskia Reeves and Samuel West?

No danger. The critics are sharpening their knives in the cheap seats.

For me, though, let them come. He can take it in the same way Lamb breaks limbs for sport. Herron is the best prose stylist working today, bar none. In fact, for me he’s funniest writer since the one and only master: PG Wodehouse. That’s the highest praise I can give and there’s no hyperbole in it. His greatest secret, of course, is that he is not a comic novelist. He’s a thriller writer with plots to enthral who just happens to have a sense of humour drier than badly made couscous and a pen as fluid as an oil slick.

Here, Herron is on sparkling form as ever. Tackling politicians in his oeuvre would, one might have expected legendary pantomime villain Peter Judd to the fore. Not so: here as the curtain rises it is the Dominic Cummings replacement, Anthony Sparrow, thrust into the spotlight.

This allows Herron to really break out the champagne lines:

“Sparrow wasn’t as high profile as his predecessor had been – it would have been challenging to maintain that level of unpopularity without barbecuing an infant on live television – but those in the know recognised him as a home-grown Napoleon: nasty, British and short.”

Also present is a cast of familiar household favourites. Claude Whelan returns to active duty, Diana Taverner, Roderick Ho, Lech Wicinski Catherine Standish, Louisa Guy are also all on the bill. And… is that… is that Shirley Dander in rehab like some form of Amy Winehouse record?

There’s even a cameo from a familiar face – but not one we’ve seen in the novels before. A perennial understudy forced onto the stage, if you will.

Then, of course, there is Jackson Lamb, the grotty gravitational force around which the entire Slough House orbits.

The devil may get all the best music, but the star turn gets all the best lines and boy-oh-boy does Lamb have yet another headline grabber here.

Covid exists in this world but I think it’s safe to say, Lamb is in fine form. Oh and terrorising Standish as ever like the one man culture war wrecking ball he is.

“She put the stool by the door; placed the sanitiser on top of it.

Lamb opened one eye. ‘Lubricant? Pretty optimistic for a staff meeting.’ He closed it again. ‘But I suppose it’ll give be a chance to swap these gender fluids I keep hearing about.’…

Lamb adopted a wounded pout. ‘What did I ever do to her?’

‘Broke her arm?’

‘She still on about that? Bloody snowflake.’”

Like all good playwrights, Herron likes structure to great effect; in fact aficionados of his work expect it. Here, the master uses structure even more than normal and the novel is no worse for that.

As the curtain closes, the reader is left with only some certain knowledge: Firstly, that Herron is the best in the business and long may his run continue when the quality is this high.

Secondly, that Apple TV+ really picked the right property to develop when they chose to let the Slow Horses out of the stable.

Purchase Links:

Amazon: https://www.amazon.co.uk/gp/search/ref=sr_adv_b/?field-isbn=9781529378702&tag=hachetteuk-21

Blackwell’s: https://blackwells.co.uk/bookshop/product/9781529378702

Book Depository (Free shipping to the US): https://www.bookdepository.com/Bad-Actors-Mick-Herron/9781529378719

Bookshop.org: https://uk.bookshop.org/a/10403/9781529378702

Foyle’s: https://www.foyles.co.uk/all?advsearch=1&isbn=9781529378702&aCode=AFW&awc=1414_1652294215_49841d552e93c65d33eb53ee0852e906

Author Bio

Mick Herron is a bestselling and award-winning novelist and short story writer, best known for his Slough House thrillers. The series has been adapted into a TV series starring Oscar-winning actor Gary Oldman as Jackson Lamb.

Raised in Newcastle upon Tyne, Herron studied English Literature at Oxford, where he continues to live. After some years writing poetry, he turned to fiction, and – despite a daily commute into London, where he worked as a sub editor – found time to write about 350 words a day. His first novel, Down Cemetery Road, was published in 2003. This was the start of Herron’s Zoë Boehm series, set in Oxford and featuring detective Zoë Boehm and civilian Sarah Tucker. The other books in the series are The Last Voice You Hear, Why We Die, and Smoke and Whispers, set in his native Newcastle. During the same period he wrote a number of short stories, many of which appeared in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine.

In 2008, inspired by world events, Mick began writing the Slough House series, featuring MI5 agents who have been exiled from the mainstream for various offences. The first novel, Slow Horses, was published in 2010. Some years later, it was hailed by the Daily Telegraph as one of “the twenty greatest spy novels of all time”.

The Slough House novels have been published in 20 languages; have won both the CWA Steel and Gold daggers; have been shortlisted for the Theakstons Crime Novel of the Year four times; and have won Denmark’s Palle Rosenkrantz prize. Mick is also the author of the highly acclaimed novels Reconstruction, This is What Happened and Nobody Walks. (Biography courtesy of https://www.mickherron.com/landing-page/mick-herron-about)

You can read my previous reviews of some of Herron’s earlier novels, Slough House here and Joe Country here

For all things Mick Herron, there is no finer place on the internet than Jeff Quest’s Barbican Station. You can follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/spywrite  

Strong Foundations See Slow Horses Set For a Long Time in the Saddle

‘Slough House’ by Mick Herron

The cover of the latest Mick Herron novel, ‘Slough House’

‘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 isn’t.

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.

Author Mick Herron poses alongside Lamb’s Passage. Not somewhere the Slow Horses would want to be…

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’)

Gary Oldman in costume as Jackson Lamb as reported by the Daily Mail

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

Slow Horses Still Glued Up

Slough House’ is dirty; ‘Spook Street’: deadly. Now we have the duplicity of ‘Joe Country’ – perhaps the next stop for Mick Herron’s ‘Slow Horses’ will be a devious ‘Intelligence Continent’?

As it is, ‘Joe Country’ is a fine addition to the series. Few writers can weave such deft description and pacy plotting – garnished with lashings of humour and even dashes of pathos – as Herron and each novel builds to a crescendo in which the reader is left feeling both traumatised and hungry for the next instalment.

There’s little doubt that Herron is a confident writer at the top of his game. This series has become famous for its openings: Dickensian wanders through locations in an omniscient voice quite unlike other writers working today. Here, he sheds this trope, instead opting for a reveal different to the structure of the other texts.

His confidence has also been apparent for a while in his wanton profligacy with his characters. It must take iron nerves for a writer to dispose of such well-rounded, independent characters brimming with such vim and spark as these Slow Horses. And yet, here again, Herron is prepared to dispose of them with abandon. As in the old TV series Spooks (MI:5 in the US), no one is safe and this means no reader can ever truly relax that their favourite character won’t end up at the knackers yard in the next ten pages.

Finally, there is Jackson Lamb. A Rabelaisian grotesque, becoming progressively more grotesque by the novel. And, in truth, Lamb is actually my biggest quibble of this first rate book. He dominates the proceedings so completely that you pine for his nastiness when he is off stage. This is Banquo as central character, relegating Macbeth to bit part player by sheer force of personality (or blackened toe wiggling through undarned sock, if you will).

There are a few minor worries deriving from Lamb which I hope are me being hyper critical. He keeps “appearing” and “vanishing” like an obese Paul Daniels – or a less creepy David Blaine – and I hope this doesn’t signal either Lamb as supernatural entity or that Herron is now so successful that he has entered the realm of the uneditable: too grand for repetitions to be noted and corrected. I think not on the whole.

Joe Country’ is proof, if any were needed, that Herron stands at the pinnacle of the espionage genre, (possibly snug on the heights with Jeremy Duns and Charles Cumming). Others have already noted it is not a book which would reward readers unfamiliar with the series but for all that, I hope the Slow Horses have many more races left to run.

In short: Horses far from in need of the knacker’s yard: 4/5*

  • Other details:
  • ISBN: 9781473660359
  • Publication date: 20 Jun 2019
  • Imprint: John Murray

Thanks to Netgalley for the advance copy