Mick Herron’s Slow Horses is a feat. It’s an authentic spy thriller with a laugh track. Written in the third person, the voice is conversational, appealing, and mildly sarcastic. Here’s an example. “Most of us hold that some things only happen to other people. Many of us hold that one such thing is death.” But it takes more than an engaging tone to create a fast-paced, suspenseful story. Herron succeeds there too.
It’s the 2000s and Britain is a mess. Whoa, Gladiola, I assumed this book is fiction. Is Slow Horses nonfiction? I don’t know. Britain certainly is a mess, but I found the book in the fiction section of Book No Further – though, I agree, the story does have that “ripped from the headlines” feel. May I continue with my review? Of course, my apologies. I’m a hairy ass covered with boils.
A group of extreme British nationalists have kidnapped a young man. He might be Pakistani, but he’s not. He was born in Britain. He does, however, have an uncle who lives in Pakistan. That’s good enough for the kidnappers. They’re going to chop his head off in 48 hours. On the internet. MI5 is on the job. Will our friend keep his head? Odds are . . . no. Because the slow horses have inserted themselves.
Who are the slow horses? They’re MI5 agents who have been relegated to Sough House, because they’re incompetent, unlucky, alcoholic, and/or obnoxious like mustard gas. They’re really bored and desperate to prove they don’t belong in Slough House – though they do.
Jackson Lamb is in charge of Slough House. And, with Lamb, Herron has created one of the great characters in the genre. He’s a foul-smelling, misanthropic burnout from when the Cold War was hot. “When he was in the field, he had more to worry about than his expenses. Things like being caught, tortured and shot. He survived.” Don’t trifle with him.
Throughout the story, he spars with Diane Taverner (Lady Di). She’s formidable in her own right. “The Service has a long and honorable tradition of women dying behind enemy lines, but was less enthusiastic about placing them behind important desks.” Lady Di sits behind a very important desk. Don’t trifle with her either. She and Lamb are at each other’s throats, and it’s delightful to watch. But will their rivalry doom our soon to be headless friend?
Everyone says Herron is John le Carre’s successor, so there’s no need to mention that here. And Everyone is stupid. As great as le Carre was, he never could have written a spy thriller like this. His stories were morality plays, and humor was a cardinal sin. Herron doesn’t get riled up about human nature and its sorry state. In fact, the subject seems to make him laugh. Me too.
Gladiola Overdrive, Chief Editor