1. Slow Horses
Banished to Jackson Lamb’s personal fiefdom, Slough House, from the higher echelons at Regent’s Park for a variety of shortcomings and vices, the ‘Slow Horses’ are a unit of MI5 misfits, desperate to atone for their past mistakes in order to escape purgatory, not entirely convinced Slough House isn’t an inescapable hell; that whatever they accomplish won’t be enough to circumvent their malpractice.
In erudition, action and temperament, Slow Horses proves Mick Herron is among the top tier of spy thriller writers. I ploughed through this first novel in the series and immediately started the second so I’ll be up to date when the fourth book, Spook Street, is published in February. In Slow Horses a boy is kidnapped and held hostage, and his beheading is scheduled for live broadcast on the internet. Whatever their personal and professional failings, Jackson Lamb’s team — if you can really call them that — can’t just sit on their hands when it’s within their capabilities — well, maybe — to do something. So they break from their remit and get involved. But this isn’t a novel about the redemption of spooks, nor a straightforward action thriller, in which the good guys serve deserved justice to the bad guys, and everyone goes home happy. This is a novel full of greys; it exposes the intricacies of inter-agency turf wars and puts human faces and human costs on those who make it their life’s work to shield us from those who seek to do us harm.
Despite the economy of Mick Herron’s work, the large cast is fleshed out, and although few are likeable — Jackson Lamb, in particular, is a bastard — they’re characters readers will root for, despite their flaws and foibles. Most impressive is Herron’s graceful prose, which reminded me of Daniel Silva’s long-running Gabriel Allon series. There’s an elegance to Herron’s storytelling, rarely seen among his contemporaries, many of whom rush to the explosion without lighting a fuse.
Slow Horses is packed full of evocative detail, movie-tense action sequences, and a credible plot. I’m so glad the book was shoved into my hands. As I write this, I am halfway through Dead Lions and enjoying it just as much as Slow Horses.
2. Dead Lions
Slough House — a disregarded echelon of MI5 — is comprised of disgraced and incompetent agents, who are assigned an endless supply of demeaning and feckless tasks in an effort to wear them down until the pull the pin on their careers. Ruled by the legendary Jackson Lamb — possibly the most abominable protagonist to have ever been spotlighted in espionage fiction — the inhabitants of Slough House are skilled operators, whose vices and mistakes have demolished whatever usefulness they might have to the service. But when a former agent, Dickie Bow, is found dead on a London bus, Lamb and his subordinates take it upon themselves to investigate. Bow’s final text message — “cicadas” — has ominous repercussions: it signifies the awakening of a sleeper cell of foreign agents, which dates back to the Cold War. Suddenly, Lamb’s Slow Horses are in a race against against time to determine their enemy’s target, and stop it from taking place.
Slow Horses was a remarkable spy novel, and this second in the series, Dead Lions, is a fine sequel. With the pieces already set up on the board, Mick Herron wastes no time in thrusting readers into a whirlwind, multi-stranded plot, which is orchestrated with Bach-like precision. Herron’s stories have the same complexity as Le Carre’s, but are written with the economy of Richard Stark, and this combination makes for an incredibly page-turning read. There is a large cast of characters involved, but each are fleshed out, and boast distinctive personalities; a rarity in this genre, when one could easily swap out James Bond for Jason Bourne, or Sean Dillon, or Jack Ryan, and not really notice any discernible difference.
Mick Herron has breathed new lie into the landscape of the espionage novel. I haven’t breezed through a series of books this quickly in a long, long time. As I write this, I’ve started the third novel, Real Tigers, and may well dig into Herron’s other novels while I wait for Spook Street in February.
3. Dead Lions
Over the course of a month I’ve smashed through Mick Herron’s three ‘Slough House’ novels — Real Tigers being the third in the series — as well as the standalone Nobody Walks. Prior to that, I’ll admit, I’d never heard of Herron, but thankfully, as a bookseller, I get to pay my newfound adoration forward, by shoving his books into customers’ hands and insisting he’s the modern equivalent of John le Carré. Which isn’t hyperbole, in case you were wondering: it’s a nailed-on fact.
So, for those who don’t know: Slough House is a disregarded echelon of MI5, comprised of disgraced and incompetent agents, ruled by the abominable Jackson Lamb. But when one of their own is abducted — Catherine Standish, scooped into the van of her ex-lover, Sean Donovan — the Slow Horses leap into action amidst savage narcissistic in-fighting within the halls of her majesty’s government.
Real Tigers is visceral, gritty and cinematic. It’s Mick Herron’s novel best novel to date, which makes it something truly special indeed. The fuse is lit in the first few pages of the novel and burns through the rest of the story until its explosive ending.