Mick Herron has a quiet, unassuming look about himself. It’s something that any spy would put to good use; to blend in unseen and observe his surroundings. However there’s another profession where the skill of silent observation comes in handy – writer.
That skill has served Herron well over the past fifteen years as the characters he’s been creating in his novels seem like people you could imagine running into as you walk down the street, or more likely would cross the street in order to avoid. I’d use the cliche that they jump off the page, but Herron’s characters are much more likely to stumble off the page leaving the pub after a pint too many while facing an unenviable choice likely to result in someone’s death.
Writing since he was a teenager, his initial focus was on poetry before turning to fiction. Several of his short stories were published in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine before Herron had his first mystery novel published in 2003. He went on to write four books in his “Oxford” series of mystery novels with detective Zoë Boehm and civilian Sarah Tucker as his protagonists. Along the way he published Reconstruction, a stand alone novel, before turning his hand to a new series about a group of British spies that their bosses would be happy to be rid of.
Accidental Spy Writer
Mick Herron is an accidental spy novelist. His first novel, Down Cemetery Road, which began what became known as his ‘Oxford’ series of books, had an MI6 subplot. Reconstruction and This is What Happened both use spies as part of their plot. Finally, his best known series, Slough House, is immersed in the spy world. But these are all a means to an end. As Herron has stated on multiple occasions, the spies are just a way to get at the most important thing for him – the characters.
Raised in Newcastle, Herron went on to study English Literature before working as a sub editor. Living in Oxford he would commute into London for his job and still find the time to knock out 350 words a day. Although it meant a slower output of books, it was the commute to his job in London that led to the creation of a spy location that is quickly becoming as memorable a setting as John le Carré’s Circus – Slough House.
People who work in Slough Houses shouldn’t throw stones
Herron’s journey to best selling spy novelist began with a simple idea. What if, rather than firing screwed up agents of MI5, the bigwigs decide to waylay them someplace they wouldn’t bother the “real” spies? He combined that idea with a building he would walk past every day on the way to work. A dingy black door squeezed between a questionable restaurant and a dodgy convenience store led to the upstairs floors. You might be able to find more depressing places to work, but this building would certainly make it into the top ten.
However the pièce de résistance was the addition of Jackson Lamb, one of fiction’s all time worst bosses. He’s a loathsome character that you can’t help but watch, somewhat like a race car fan waiting for the next horrific crash. A truly stand out creation, Lamb’s only redeeming qualities are a sly cunning in knowing how to survive in the cut throat spy world and the way he looks after his “joes” – spies he has working in the field.
The first book, Slow Horses, was published in 2010 by Soho Press in the US but the books didn’t get much traction in the UK. That changed when publisher John Murray picked up the rights to the series in 2015 and begin a full publicity push for the series. Further acclaim, talk of a potential TV series and, crucial to a continuing book series, bigger sales numbers followed.
With Slough House, Herron has created a spy series that can stand with the best spy novels. No, he’s not “the next le Carré” or Deighton or Fleming. He’s something new – and that’s a good thing. Or as Jackson Lamb would end a discussion about who is the next great spy novelist, “Well, I’m glad we’ve had this chat. Now fuck off.”
For previous reviews of the Slough House series, a visit to the real Slough House, a Slough House glossary and more visit here.
Herron was kind enough to answer some questions via email that had come to mind while I was completing my recent reread of the entire Slough House series.
Spy Write: Spies have figured into your writing from your first novel, Down Cemetery Road, as well as Reconstruction and even more recently in the non-Slough House novel This is What Happened. What is it about writing about spies that keeps bringing you back to them as a subject?
Mick Herron: The spy element of Down Cemetery Road made its first appearance in a late draft of that novel, as a substitution for a plot strand that didn’t work. So I hadn’t exactly intended that to be a spy novel. In Reconstruction, the espionage element was necessary to justify the event I was mostly interested in writing about: the hostage situation in the nursery school. So despite those novels, I think of Slow Horses as my first spy novel proper. And what’s kept me returning to that world since is Slough House itself. I enjoy writing about the kind of characters that would end up in such a place.
SW: I don’t think you grew up in London and you don’t live there now, so I’m curious about your relationship with the city. You write about London in what I would call a cynical but loving manner, is that an accurate assessment of your feelings about it? Is it a love/hate relationship?
MH: I worked in London for fifteen years, without ever living there. And yes, I think love/hate sums it up. As a locale for fiction, it fulfils all my needs: it’s bright and dazzly, grubby and creepy; it’s got all the history one could want, and still offers huge scope for making up more when required. But it’s noisy and crowded, and doesn’t always work properly, and you have to travel annoying distances to get anywhere. And the reputation it’s developed as the world’s money-laundering capital, which goes hand-in-hand with all manner of other corruption, fills me with unease.
SW: One of the reasons I think that the Slough House series has been so successful is that nearly everyone can relate to the workplace experience. Many of the anecdotes feel drawn from life. Was your work experience as hellish as it is for the Slow Horses? Did your colleagues start giving you the fish eye, imagining they saw a fun house mirror version of themselves in your books?
MH: My work experience wasn’t hellish, no, and while it did offer insights into the nature of large organisations, which I’ve used when writing about entirely different large organisations, I’ve never felt the need to exorcise memories of my day job now I’m free of it. Nor do I recall any colleagues wondering if they’d found their way onto my pages. Mind you, it’s an often-observed truth that people don’t recognise fictional versions of themselves – or not if the portrait’s unflattering.
SW: Much of your work seems to take pleasure in upending a reader’s expectations. Do you actively plot those twists out or do you just decide on the fly to go left when the story seems to be pointing to the right?
MH: About half and half. A certain number of plot points are embedded in the novel before I start writing it; occasionally, a particular twist is the reason for writing a book in the first place. But I don’t plot a book minutely before writing it, and a lot of changes take place along the way. So some of those twists will have occurred to me at about the same point in the novel that they’re dropped on the reader.
SW: In Dead Lions, mortality and how people deal with that concept seems a main theme, in Real Tigers, a major issue all the characters are dealing with, Standish especially, is addiction. Dealing with “the sins of the fathers” seemed to stretch through Spook Street. Even if I’m off on your exact theme, do you consciously decide on them for your books or do they tend to flow organically out of the characters? I’m assuming it is something that you are thinking about as you are writing or editing your books, but please correct me if I’m wrong.
MH: Thematic patterning acts as a kind of narrative glue, and I’d find it difficult to construct a novel without some underlying theme to it, even if one that never becomes obvious to the reader. But as to whether that theme arises out of the material I’m dealing with, or is imposed by me on the story I’m constructing, I couldn’t honestly say.
SW: I really enjoyed Nobody Walks, the stand alone book which existed in the world of the Slough House. It reminded me a bit of the work of American writer Donald Westlake. You used it as an opportunity to fully introduce a couple of characters who later appear in the main series. Ingrid Tearney in particular makes a strong impression. Did you decide to use that book to give them a fuller introduction than might otherwise been possible? Or did you decide to give them larger roles in the Slough House series after having written Nobody Walks?
MH: Nobody Walks exists at a kind of tangent to the Slough House series. At the time I began writing it, I had no publishing contract for Dead Lions, and was wondering – with some reluctance – whether I should start working in a different vein. That’s one of the reasons it’s stylistically quite different. The espionage elements were always going to be there, but by the time I was midway through the book – around the point where the plot pivots, and those elements come into play – Dead Lions’ future had been secured, which is why I decided, instead of inventing a whole new backdrop, to just slip back into the world I’d already created, and save everyone time and trouble. That also gave me licence to recruit JK Coe for Slough House a couple of years later. I’m very glad about that.
SW: The Slough House books are very cynical, about politics, about spies, about technology and about human nature. Is that your regular state of mind on those things or are these books just the opportunity to channel some of those feelings?
MH: Until relatively recently, I’d thought the books more cynical than I actually feel. Of late, I’m not sure that’s any longer the case. Certainly, in London Rules, I was letting rip a bit … I came across some words recently that seem apposite here; from the critic Louis Menand on Richard Condon, author of – among many other works – The Manchurian Candidate. Condon was a cynic of the upbeat type, wrote Menand; “his belief that everything is basically shit did not get in the way of his pleasure in making fun of it.”
SW: Your skill at writing banter is quite strong. Is that because it’s something you practice in real life or are you more of the “think of the perfect rejoinder after the fact” type of person? Do you spend a lot of time refining those moments or they tend to work right from the start?
MH: Oh, I’m writing on the staircase, if you get my drift. I’d be brilliant at delivering one-line rejoinders if I had six or eight weeks to think of each one. Those scenes which are heavy on banter take a long time to write.
SW: You’ve given quick glimpses into the type of person Lamb had been before giving up all hope. I think the most telling quote came from London Rules – “After half a lifetime battling the forces of oppression, he’d spent the second half revenging himself on a world that had fucked up anyway.” Have you thought about writing a book focusing on a younger Jackson Lamb?
MH: I have no plans to do this, ever.
SW: Like any good writer you foreshadow certain things. I have to say that anytime you have a character thinking about their future it’s like I’m walking over their grave. Beyond that though, you’ve had various things from previous books – River’s father, Catherine’s alcoholism, Roddy’s “girlfriend” – take on larger significance in later books. How much of that is a conscious pre-planning versus the serendipity of things fitting into your plots?
MH: It’s mostly serendipidity. When I’ve deliberately foreshadowed something I plan to work into later books, I’ve generally come a cropper. There was a hint in London Rules of something that might happen in Book 6, but I discovered that I don’t actually have room for it, so that’s still hanging fire …
When I read through all the books last year, for continuity purposes, I stumbled across a few things I’d forgotten about. Some of these I’ve used as kindling in Book 6.
SW: Over the past five books you’ve created your own language and world that the spies of Slough House inhabit. I’ve documented the ones I’ve found and was surprised at how long the list was. I know you’re not a writer interested in being research heavy on the real spy world but did you anticipate that would mean you’d be creating your own spy universe? It obviously draws comparisons to le Carré and his created spy terminology.
MH: Le Carré gave permission to spy writers, I like to think, to create jargon. Some of mine is borrowed; some of it made up. And some of it I thought I’d made up, only to discover that I’d borrowed. (My hierarchy at Regent’s Park – First Desk, Second Desk, etc – I thought was my own, until I reread Deighton’s Berlin Game not long ago. He has Berlin Desk, and so on … I suspect that’s where I got the notion from, without realising it at the time.)
SW: You’ve provided hints to the organizational structure of your fictional MI5 and based on that I’ve charted out a potential org chart at the end of my Slough House glossary. Do you have it all mapped out or have you left it unstructured to arrange it on the fly as the book demands?
MH: Unstructured. (Except for those times where I appear to have contradicted myself, or even – in layman’s terms – to have “made a mistake”. If it ever looks like that has happened, there’s always a very subtle, very cunning reason behind it, which I don’t plan to divulge.)
SW: Do you have an endpoint already in mind for the Slough House series or do you see yourself writing them as long as the characters interest you?
MH: I’ll keep going as long as the characters interest me; which, in turn, will be for not quite as long as readers want me to. That’s the plan, anyway. We can probably all think of authors who’ve got those the wrong way round, and there’s no guarantee I won’t be one of them.
(On this topic, a few readers have expressed their belief that London Rules was the last in the series. I’m not sure why. It’s not, and was never intended to be.)
SW: Will you be visiting the US to promote your books anytime soon? Fans in Chicago would love it if you were able to make it to a location in the area.
MH: I was in the US earlier this year, and will be again in the future, I’m sure, though I have no definite plans at the moment. And Chicago – I’ve never been there. I’ve heard it’s warm and peaceful, right? With a surfer-dude vibe going on?
SW: A silly question, how did you resist titling your 4th Slough House book Red Bears, or some such Bear title, thereby completing the Lions, Tigers and Bears trilogy? I couldn’t have stopped myself.
MH: Oh my! … I was adhering to the rule of three, that’s all. One more animal title, and I’d have had to stick with them for evermore.
Fellow Slough House fan Clarissa Aykroyd suggested these two questions –
CA: The style of your Oxford/Zoe Boehm books is highly descriptive, almost lush at times, and extremely detailed about your main characters’ internal states. The Slough House books come across as much more terse and snarky. In the trio of plot, style and character, which do you find is the main catalyst or determining factor when you are writing different books or series – ie. does plot follow from character, style from plot, or?
MH: I think I write differently now. Part of that comes from a change in material … Writing about a large cast of characters demands a different style, I found, if the books weren’t to become unwieldy. But also, style develops. Or perhaps deteriorates. Changes, anyway.
“Terse and snarky”, if that’s my current tone, seems appropriate for the novels I’m writing at the moment. Perhaps, if I wrote about Zoë again, I’d slip back into a more leisurely style – if I were focused on a single character, I’d certainly have more time to rummage around in her consciousness. But maybe I’d discover she’d become more bitter in the years we’ve spent apart.
CA: Have you read Christopher Fowler’s Bryant and May books yet? If not, when are you going to read them, and if so, when are you and Christopher Fowler going to get together and give us at least a short story where your characters mingle together in the same London, which they seem so eminently qualified to do?
MH: Oh, I’m far too much of a control freak to want to collaborate on a piece of fiction.
SW: And finally, I have to ask, any hints you can drop for The sixth Slough House book?
MH: Yes. It doesn’t have an animal in the title.
SW: Thank you so much for taking the time to answer my questions. I have really enjoyed your novels and look forward to what you have coming next.
MH: Thank you!
Spybrary interview with Mick Herron
The Spectator interview with Mick Herron
David Craggs interview with Herron on Artistic Licence Renewed
Mick Herron’s Website