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. The Slough House book Real Tigers was released in 2016 and followed the short story The List and the novels Dead Lions and Nobody Walks. Read more on other Slough House books here.
In fairy tales, when you were offered a choice of doors, there was generally a tiger behind one of them. That was why it was best to kick them down.
In the third book of Mick Herron’s Slough House series he expands his world by diving head first into the political maneuvering involved in keeping a civil service bureaucracy running. Real Tigers feels like an episode of The Thick of It mixed up with the first season of the BBC show MI5 and it works amazingly well. All of the machinations in the previous books in the series feel like a trip to kindergarten compared to the wheels within wheels occurring once we meet the head of MI5, Dame Ingrid Tearney, and are re-introduced to Peter Judd, who has now been appointed the Home Secretary and is overseeing MI5.
The book starts with a bit of a bizarre death that, while it does later make sense, serves mainly to allow Herron to do his typical scene setting of the city of London. Herron writes about city life as well as anyone out there and brings its daily frustrations and furies to life. Anyone who has lived in a big city will recognize themselves in his descriptions.
Once past the opening scene, what truly sets the plot going is the kidnapping of Catherine Standish for reasons unknown. This kicks into motion a series of bad decisions by multiple parties in a way that only seems possible when the slow horses are involved.
Beyond the plot, if Dead Lions was about coming to terms with the death of those you care about, Real Tigers is about addiction. Just about all of the Slough House characters are dealing with it in some manner. Marcus is a gambler digging himself deeper in debt, Shirley has a “recreational” drug habit that is quickly turning into a non-stop vacation and River, due to his spy upbringing, can’t live with not being in the action.
The most overt of these addict stories is Catherine Standish and her struggle, while not the heart of the plot, is the heart of the story. She’s an alcoholic who has maintained her sobriety for years by battening down the hatches and locking things up tight. When she’s kidnapped, her routine is broken and the razor edge between being sober and drunk is made clearer to her than it has for a long time. Herron does an excellent job of dragging you into her dark thoughts and has you wondering which way the bottle will spin on her sobriety.
While Catherine has reached bottom and clawed her way back up, Herron contrasts her with Louisa who seems to be quickly working her way down to nights of blacking out and anonymous hookups. Louisa is still very much damaged goods after losing her boyfriend Min Harper in Dead Lions. Ironically the loss of Min seems to have made her a better MI5 agent, or at least has allowed her to flex long dormant skills that were atrophying during her time as a Slow Horse.
I haven’t spent much time on the plot, but it is probably Herron’s best yet. It has some very nice twists and reveals, especially when it comes to what the title is referencing, and each character gets their moment to shine. Real Tigers is an outstanding entry into the series.
River Cartwright – Imagine a James Bond who only makes the right choice a third of the time.
Catherine Standish – The upright and uptight moral center of Slough House. By the end of the book she’ll be tested in multiple ways.
Roddy Ho – Emotionally stunted computer geek. But he does know how to hot wire a car.
Jackson Lamb – Can Lamb find even lower depths to hit? Don’t worry, with Lamb it’s always a race to the most disgusting bottom.
Dame Ingrid Tearney – MI5 head who is slowly being maneuvered into the guillotine.
Diana Taverner – In her attempt to get to be the First Desk of MI5 she takes her plotting to new levels.
Marcus Longfellow – Although the Slow Horses are supposed to be out of the action, this book gives Marcus ample opportunity to learn when to hold ’em, when to fold ’em, when to walk away, and when to run.
Shirley Dander – The fact that she is an unrepentant drug addict is less important than being sure not to get on the wrong side of an argument her taste in music CD’s.
Peter Judd – The worst you’ve thought of every politician wrapped up into a neat little package.
Opening Tour Method of Slough House
Lamb on moving on –
“Water under the bridge.” But he said this with the air of one who spent a lot of time on bridges, waiting for the bodies of his enemies to float past.
On managing your recreational drug habit –
Besides, it wasn’t like Shirley was an habitual user. It was a weekend thing with her, strictly Thursday to Tuesday.
Lamb, using his emotional intelligence training on his staff by asking River about his injured friend –
Knowing an answer was expected, River said: “He’s hooked up to about seven different machines. Nobody’s expecting him to wake up anytime soon.”
“Have they tried switching him off then switching him on again?”
River, contemplating fantasy versus reality –
Bond would have leaped from the bridge onto a passing bus, or drop-kicked a motorcyclist and hijacked his wheels. Bourne would have surfed the streets on car roofs, or slipped into parkour mode, bouncing off walls and wheelie bins, always knowing which alley to cut through . . . River threw a quick glance at the nearby row of Boris bikes, shook his head, and ran down into the tube station.
On bureaucracy –
…[O]perations always produced paperwork: the more secret something needed to be, the more arse-covering was necessary for when it leaked. And nothing covered departmental arse like reams and reams of paper.
Peter Judd, redefining political terminology –
“So I gather. Bit of a rumpus over your way this morning, what?” “Rumpus” was a favourite PJ-word; one he’d employed to describe a recent tabloid splash about his friendship with a lap dancer. It was also a term he’d used in reference to both 9/11 and the global recession.
The head of MI5 faces the new political realities-
… Dame Ingrid was now realising, that the greatest threat to the Service—and her own role within it—seemed to be emanating from the Home Secretary rather than its more traditional enemies: terrorists, rival security agencies, the Guardian.
We get a snippet of Lamb’s past –
It was true what he’d told Tearney, he didn’t spend much time in churches, but he’d set fire to one once, way back when, behind the Curtain—he recalled the acrid taste of woodsmoke on his tongue, the way it had roiled upwards into the Soviet dark, melting the falling snow. How long do memories last? This one had been with him half his life, and carried on for what seemed like minutes. That noise, that bang, was the first of the rifle shots, as the soldiers realised what he’d done.
We find the kidnapped Catherine locked up in the middle of nowhere in
There’s a nice little scene on the walkway just a stones throw away from Slough House where River confronts the kidnapper. Herron continues to do a good job of using the city’s real topography to set various scenes in his novels. I’m sure someone with an even better sense of London could pinpoint these locations better than I can.
We also get a nice flavor of the city due to the methods of travel such as the tube, Boris bikes, taxis and personal vehicles that the characters end up getting around in which seems more varied this book. The setting of the book as a whole is an unseasonably hot London and as the plot builds, so does the temperature and tempers flare and mistakes are made.
For the Collector
With the publication of Real Tigers, John Murray took over as Herron’s UK publisher and with the paperback release in late 2016 they put their full might behind promoting the books.
They redesigned and re-released the first three novels in the series and worked to make Herron a household name. When I was in London late last year his novels were everywhere, no doubt helped because of the general spy fever sweeping the city due to the release of le Carré’s A Legacy of Spies. By 2017 they’d done yet another redesign of his backlist, this time to match the look of his latest book, Spook Street. I was lucky enough to find some signed paperback copies in one of the many Waterstones bookstores in London.
Real Tigers not only has an excellent plot but Herron also gives his characters depth and struggles that seem all to real and he does it all while making you laugh out loud. Herron manages to out do his previous two entries in the series.
Next up is a look at book 4 in the Slough House series – Spook Street.