Fortunately, I trained early in the art of solitude. Until I was 5, I was an only child on a farm in the mountains of Quebec’s Eastern Townships. Our land produced a reliable crop of stones every year, just enough hay to keep the cows going and a few hardy vegetables. Without electricity, telephone or indoor plumbing, I had only my imagination to entertain me. It has come in handy in the past two months.
I know the Covid-19 shut down has theoretically lasted only 5 weeks or so, but I was shut in by debilitating dizziness and nausea for most of February, so thank you early childhood.
Once we moved to town and I learned to read, I read everything I could get my hands on, which wasn’t much. It wasn’t until we moved to the city at the end of the war that I laid hands on library books. Then my ingrained solitary self could live happily in worlds populated by imaginary people.
For 2 1/2 months, I have lived surrounded by the slow horses, exiles from the British Secret Service (MI5), banished across the Thames to rundown Slough House in the hope that mind-numbing clerical work will force them to quit.
I discovered Mick Herron’s Slough House series when I searched the e-book catalogue of my local library for the Soho Mysteries. I had already read many of these books including the Cara Black mysteries set in Paris, David Downing’s set across Europe and South Asia and Dan Fesperson’s also European in setting.
Herron is English, an Oxford alumnus. He worked as an editor and never, he is quick to say as a spy, unlike many well-known spy novelists like Le Carre. As a result, he feels free to invent. His ‘slow horses’ are rejects from the MI5 head-quartered in Regent Park, London. Each of them has failed in their training or their service, some spectacularly, but, for one reason or another, cannot be fired outright.
River Cartwright, for example is the grandson of David Cartwright, fondly known as OB (Old Bastard) and formerly #2 in the Service. River ‘crashed’ King’s Cross subway station during the evening rush causing the entire system to shut down for hours. Theoretically. By failing to capture the ‘suicide terrorist’. In fact commuters carried on blissfully unaware of their fate. It was a training test.
Other insubstantial inhabitants of my 14th floor apartment included Bad Sam Chapman, disgraced head Dog (security) of the Service; alcoholic Catherine Standish, former assistant to #1, whose body she discovered, fighting her addiction a day at a time; Louisa Guy, the most competent of the lot; Min Harper, who left a top-secret disc on a subway seat; Roddy Ho, computer genius and social moron; Marcus Longridge, an inveterate gambler; J.K. Coe, PTSD victim who finds stress relief in killing people; Moira Tregorian, who has no idea why she has been sent there: Lech (Alec) Wicinski, who absolutely did not access child pornography on his work computer; Sid Baker -is she a plant and what really happens to her; Shirley Dander, cocaine addict and one-woman army and Jackson Lamb. Lamb drinks, smokes, and farts at his desk, never washes, and, generally breaks each and every politically correct convention there is going, inflicts pain and suffering on his staff, for he is indeed the head of Slough House. For his sins or possibly for his achievements. On the other hand, he will not suffer anyone one else to harm his joes.
A joe is an agent in the field. Slow horses are no longer permitted to mount ops, to undertake operations. They are to stick to their book work, their computer drudgery on their outdated equipment, but every so often an op is forced upon them by circumstances, when someone is intent on murdering Roddy Ho, for example, or someone kidnaps Catherine, or Min’s teenage son goes missing. The list goes on.
They are all inept, not a James Bond in the bunch. Quite a few of them get eliminated by their much more cunning adversaries. What they lack in effectiveness, they make up for in spirit. Some deaths are heroic, some are chance and some are just plain stupid. Even though they can’t stand each other in the office, they throw themselves bodily into the fray when a fellow slow horse is in danger. And Jackson Lamb, who often seems to be missing in action, is usually meeting Regent Park’s #1 or #2 with enough blackmail to protect his people from ‘friendly fire’. You may hear him snoring, but don’t assume he is sleeping on the job.
The books are mysteries, yes, but they are also funny, partly because of their absurdity but also because of their wit. Jackson Lamb dismisses Brexit, “I’ve read more convincing lies on the side of a bus.” And “Except the cold war didn’t end. It just hid behind closed doors like Trump in a tantrum.”
The series begins with Slow Horses, in which a kidnapped Muslim boy is due to be beheaded on-line. Dead Lions harks back to the Old Bastard’s glory days, a possibly mythical Soviet spy and a very long term sleeper cell. Real Tigers involves a para-military group coercing the slow horses into handing over secret information. Spook Street centers on River and his grandfather and a curious commune in France with children but no female residents. London Rules focuses on British politics and elucidates the rules of spydom there as opposed to Moscow rules; London rules include ‘Cover your arse’ and ‘Stick together until you can’t.’ Joe Country is a Brexit era novel with a character who may well be a pre-covid Boris Johnson, its thrilling final action set in wintry Wales. There are also several novellas, including The List -after Dead Lions, Nobody Walks -after it, The Drop before Joe Country and The Last Dead Letter after it as well as The Catch. These shorter works may refer to Slough House but center on other characters.
Herron has also written several novels featuring Zoe Boehm, a private detective, another down at the heels protagonist.
For a glossary of terms, characters and places used in the Slough House books see https:spywrite.com/2018/07/04mick-herron-slough-house, which would be particularly helpful if you read the books out of order.