Slow Horses by Mick Herron

In anticipation of Mick Herron’s US release of London Rules, the fifth book in his Slough House series, I’m doing a re-read of the first four books. First up is Slow Horses from 2010.

In Herron’s first book set fully in the spy world we’re introduced to the “Slow Horses.” These are the misfits and screw ups of MI5 who are shunted off to a dingy little building to serve their time and, ideally, give up and quit. The book’s plot revolves around the Slow Horses getting caught up in solving the kidnapping of college student. To reveal more of the plot specifics would ruin some of the fun reversals of expectation that Herron doles out. The author seems to delight in his ability to mess with the readers and their anticipation of what will happen.

However, Herron’s greatest strength is not his plots. They serve their purpose but the reason to read and re-read his books is his creation of fully realized characters and ability to capture the truth of city living. Below I highlight some of his memorable creations for the first book.

Characters –

River Cartwright – wannabe super spy/espionage royalty/screwup

Roddy “Clint” Ho – Computer genius and social incompetent

Min Harper and Louisa Guy – Two spy screw ups who form an unlikely connection

Catherine Standish – Formerly the right hand of the head of the service, formerly a drunk, currently sober and the administrative force keeping Lamb’s Slough House running

Sid Baker – a young, attractive agent whose reasons for being sent among the Slow Horses is murky

Jed Moody – A former “Dog”, Herron’s name for MI5’s internal affairs/cleanup squad, now put out to pasture with the Slow Horses.

Jackson Lamb – Cold Warrior whose closest brush with being PC was turning on his computer.

Diana “Lady Di” Taverner – MI5 upper management. I was going to call her a schemer, but since everyone in these books seems to be scheming in some way, that doesn’t seem entirely fair. Better might be that she raises scheming to an artform.

James “Spider” Webb – The jealous peer of River and aspiring bigwig, currently littlewig.

Despite my rather glib one sentence summations of each character, Herron gives them layers and textures that make them into real people. You may not like them, but you understand and relate to their motivations and foibles. He’s done something rare in these novels and even rarer in the espionage genre, create a cast of characters that could all be worthy of their own spinoff book.

A few of his memorable character sketches –

Min Harper spent a chunk of the evening on the phone to his boys: nine and eleven. A year ago, this would have left him knowing more than he needed to about computer games and TV shows, but it seemed both had crossed a line at the same time, and now it was like trying to have a conversation with a pair of refrigerators.

 

Years ago—and he wouldn’t thank you for reminding him—Roderick Ho had worked out what his Service nickname would be. More than that, he’d settled on his possible responses first time it was used. Yeah, make my day, he’d say. Or Feeling lucky, punk? That’s what you said when people called you Clint. Roderick Ho = Westward Ho = Eastward Ho = Clint. But nobody had ever called him Clint. Perhaps political correctness wouldn’t allow them to make the oriental elision from Westward to Eastwood. Or perhaps he was giving them too much credit. Perhaps they’d never heard of Westward Ho!

 

Louisa Guy went home to her rented studio flat: examined its four walls—what she could see of them behind stuff in the way: piles of CDs, books, damp laundry on collapsible racks—and almost went straight out again, but couldn’t face the choices that would entail.

 

Lamb didn’t look any different, was still a soft fat rude bastard, still dressed like he’d been thrown through a charity shop window, but Jesus, River thought—Lamb was a joe.

River, talking about his interactions with his master spy grandfather –

‘But the first bedtime story he ever did read me was Kim.’ River could tell she recognized the title, so didn’t elaborate. ‘After that, well, Conrad, Greene. Somerset Maugham.’ ‘Ashenden.’ ‘You get the picture. For my twelfth birthday, he bought me le Carré’s collected works. I can still remember what he said about them. ‘They’re made up. But that doesn’t mean they’re not true.”

Cityscapes –

One of the few, and fun, ways that Herron is actually similar to le Carré  is also one I haven’t heard much comment on. Herron, similar to early le Carré , basically uses real locations to create his fictional spy world and early le Carré locations are easily found. The Circus, Smiley’s home, St. Mark’s locks, Battersea Bridge and more are all very findable to those who care to look. He’s become a bit more cagey in later years about his locations. For example, there’s no obvious location for “The Stables” from A Legacy of Spies that I could find.

For those Herron fan’s who are interested, this is great news and you can search out many of the spots referenced in his books. I did just that for Slow Horses.

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As previously mentioned I found the Barbican location of the Slough House. I can attest that the building is just as dodgy in real life as it is in Herron’s descriptions.

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Via Google’s streetview I found the location just in front of the Globe Theater looking out over the Thames where Diana Taverner has her clandestine meetings outside of the prying eyes of CCTV cameras in the first book.

A climactic meeting of the minds happens at the burial place of William Blake –

20060609132500!William_Blake's_grave_with_flower

After keeping track during my re-read I created this Google map of the various spots from the book.

Herron writes about London in what I would can a cynical but loving manner. I don’t believe he grew up in the city and doesn’t live there now, so I’m curious about his relationship with London. As I myself am a long time commuter into “the city” for work, I sense in Herron’s writing a frustration with the day to day indignities that come with working in a modern metropolis. Highlighting those feelings are the scene setting opening pages to his books were his omniscient narrator gives a god’s eye view of his characters and the city they live in.

For the collector

The first book was released in hardcover in the US by Soho Press and the UK by Constable. I believe they were both the same hardcover run but with slightly different jackets listing the different publishers, although I have not been able to corroborate this yet. The first book has regularly been selling online anywhere from $40 to $100 although if you keep your eyes open you can find cheaper copies. Just be sure that they aren’t ex-library books.

After an initially disappointing debut, John Murray picked up the UK rights and have run the book right to the top of the bestsellers list. They have reissued the series in the UK as paperbacks with a couple of different covers, the most recent one unifying the look with the most recent hardcovers. Personally, it’s my favorite.

Herron is regularly touring in the UK and makes semi-regular appearances in the US so your chances to get the book signed are rather good.

Conclusion

I can’t recommend this book series enough. I roll my eyes when people call the newest spy novelist “the new le Carré” especially as the old le Carré is doing just fine thank you. However, I will say that Herron combines the thoughtful characterizations of John le Carré, the humor of Len Deighton’s Harry Palmer books and the puzzlebox plots of Brian Freemantle into an altogether new and satisfying spy concoction. And the Slough House series only gets better from here.

Further reading/listening:

Buy the book.

Spybrary interview with Mick Herron

The Spectator interview with Mick Herron

David Craggs interview with Herron on Artistic Licence Renewed

Mick Herron’s Website

Next up is a look at book 2 in the Slough House series – Dead Lions.

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3 thoughts on “Slow Horses by Mick Herron

  1. Frank Hughes

    Hi

    I love the covers of the reissues and have now collected the first four books with these covers. Do we know if London Rules is going to have a similar cover to these. I did the same thing when they reissued the Le Carre’s with those fantastic new covers and was disappointed when they didn’t bring out Legacy of Spies in that format.

    1. London Rules appears to have the same look as the previous reissues. And I agree, the covers are very striking. Interestingly, for A Legacy of Spies, the UK version was a new art direction while the US edition used the same artist that did the recent reissue covers for le Carre’s backlist.

  2. Pingback: Dead Lions by Mick Herron – Spy Write

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