Very minor spoilers below.
What do you do when that thing from your past you’ve moved on from, or at least tried to bury deep inside, comes back? Do you embrace it? Reject it? Run from it as fast as possible? Perhaps all of the above and more.
That’s part of what River and the slow horses are facing in Mick Herron’s latest, Slough House.
Herron lulls you into a false sense of security from the start with his now regular trip through Slough House, a waystation for spy screw ups, and it’s current tenants. However it isn’t long before the pennies start to drop and we learn MI5 is not only facing threats from the outside of the Russian flavor, but also an existential crisis from within.
The book starts slow, setting up the mystery. Slow horses are being killed and no one is sure why and who might be next. At the same time Diana Taverner, the new head of MI5, is coming to terms with the devil’s bargain she’s made with conniving politician Peter Judd. Although Taverner has always had her own agenda, her motivations were clear – the dual purpose of advancing both her career and the country. Judd has no such higher motives than growing his own power and influence. That lack of morals gives him permission to be more ruthless than Taverner.
As head of Slough House Jackson Lamb continues to look out for his joes, even if he doesn’t like or respect them very much. We start to see the wrongly framed Lech integrate into the group and partner with Shirley Dander, which based on the past performance is not a good long term career move. Tech head Roddy Ho continues to live on a whole different planet.
Although the last book had another confrontation with River’s father, it was really Louisa’s story. In Slough House, it’s fully River’s story as he faces a ghost from his past. As usual, River plays at James Bond, trying to be the lone wolf savior, but there’s starting to be a glimmer of recognition that his life is rather empty. His grandfather, who was his strongest family connection and gave his life direction is gone. Instead he’s left with a one bedroom apartment and no friends. His only way forward might be to accept the help of others in an effort to start to connect more.
Although some of the previous novels’ plots haven’t been as strong as his character work, I found the balance of plot vs. characters here one of the best. Real world events, Russian hit teams and political protests, have given him a good jumping off point. Herron continues to look into the future and see what’s just around the corner so that when his books come out, you’re amazed at how close to current events he’s managed to get. Whether it’s Brexit or politicians manipulating crowds of rioters, you wonder whether he’s got a crystal ball in addition to his keyboard up in Oxford. Perhaps we need to petition him for a book on world peace next.
This book is a gift to long time readers. In the same way that Joe Country was a sequel to Spook Street, Slough House is a sequel to Slow Horses. You could easily read the first book and then Slough House without missing too much, not that I’d recommend skipping the other novels.
The ending is truly surprising. I had my antenna up and was aware something was coming but still managed to be shocked at how completely Herron had pulled one over on me. Herron’s narrative tricks are well known and long time readers know to keep their eyes peeled, but I was still taken quite by surprise. The life of a slow horse is never easy and once you become one, there’s no going back. The same could be said for fans of Herron’s books.
Herron uses a “shock and awe” strategy of novel writing. He shocks you with absurd situations, violence and political cynicism and awes you with his character studies, evocative writing and humor. Slough House is no exception.
More on previous Slough House books here.