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 the full Q & A with Herron, go here.
Find Mick’s website at MickHerron.com