Anyone scrolling through the newspaper to find something, anything that isn’t about the Trump Slump affecting our friends across the water will have encountered masses of column inches devoted to Mick Herron’s new spy novel in the Jackson Lamb series. Bouyed by the hype, I decided to pick up the first book, Slow Horses to see what all the fuss was about.
Slow Horses is the nickname for a branch of the British Secret Service where agents go to live out the last of their moribund careers. Their lives pass in mundane scouring of online data in the hope of finding terrorists and other international threats that are hiding in the volume.
The series has received so many comparisons with the work of John le Carré that it makes you wonder whether all newspapers have replaced their human book reviewers with some sort of automated program. There is indeed all the world-weary cynicism of George Smiley’s Cold War activities here. However, I found Slow Horses to be more similar to another author’s work: Raymond Chandler.
Like many of Chandler’s Philip Marlowe stories, such as The Lady in the Lake, the plot of Slow Horses is absurd. I didn’t believe it for a moment. Just to take one example, we are expected to believe that a hub of spies has a door that doesn’t open properly and lacks an on-site 24-hour security presence. Anyone who has wandered around the City of London recently will know how ridiculous that sounds.
However, also like Chandler, Herron is a wonderful writer, so he carries you along on a journey just on the strength of his prose, like in this description of the Slough House building:
To its left is a former newsagent’s, now a newsagent’s/grocer’s/off-licence, with DVD rental a blooming sideline; to its right, the New Empire Chinese restaurant, whose windows are constantly obscured by a thick red curtain. A typewritten menu propped against the glass has yellowed with age but is never replaced; is merely amended with marker pen. If diversification has been the key to the newsagent’s survival, retrenchment has been the long-term strategy of the New Empire, with dishes regularly struck from its menu like numbers off a bingo card.
Furthermore, although I thought the storyline didn’t actually work, I was still completely hooked by this book. I couldn’t put it down. Herron has a subtle skill of grabbing his reader’s interest without using any of the obvious cliff-hangers that would be the stock in trade of an airport novelist.
Every spy novel needs a big personality at its heart and Slough House is dominated by the vast bulk of its deadly and much-loathed chief of operations Jackson Lamb. Like all his underlings, Lamb’s career has hit the skids after what would have typically been a career-ending error. He has survived to shepherd the dregs of the intelligence service through their twilight years. Except that Lamb knows how the game is played, i.e. by ignoring the fact that it is a game at all.
Massive and unpleasant, he is a wonderful, vigorous fictional creation and put me in mind of Robert Galbraith/JK Rowling’s similarly large hero Cormoran Strike:
Lamb turned to study him through half-open eyes, causing River to remember about the hippo being among the world’s most dangerous beasts. It was barrel-shaped and clumsy, but if you wanted to piss one off, do it from a helicopter. Not while sharing a car.
Slow Horses is a book that I shouldn’t have liked but that I absolutely loved. I’m already moving on to the next novel in the series Dead Lions. Mick Herron, like his protagonist Jackson Lamb, can break all the rules and still get the job done.