All the Slow Horses

‘Slough House’, the seventh book in Mick Herron’s series about disgraced exiles from British intelligence

Spies are terrible people, despite what the mythology and the billion-dollar screen franchises about them might say. And no other author working today understands this like Mick Herron does, as he proves again in Slough House, the seventh book in his series about a group of disgraced exiles from the British intelligence services.

Herron, like the much-missed John le Carré, to whom critics often compare him, tells the stories of spies mired in the day-to-day reality of their profession. They lie and cheat and steal for a living. They are not James Bond. These are not people you would trust with your car keys, let alone national secrets, and yet they’re the ones who actually show up for work.

Slough House

Slough House is the name of the decaying building where the intelligence establishment sends these washouts, addicts, and security risks for their failures. Called the Slow Horses, sitting in broken chairs and staring at ancient CRT monitors, their bosses expect them to do pointless tasks for the rest of their careers or until they die. It hardly matters which comes first.

Before you read the latest installment in their troubles, however, you should pick up the rest of the books. Herron doesn’t dwell on the past and you can grasp any dangling plotlines quickly enough, but regardless, reading all seven isn’t any kind of a chore. Herron, an exceptional writer, paces his books brilliantly. He’s capable of prose that’s stark in places and beautiful in others. His action scenes hum without any wasted moments, and his dialogue is funny, or profane, or chilling, as each voice demands. Herron has the full toolkit, and he builds these stories so tight you can barely find the seams where the pieces meet.

His action scenes hum without any wasted moments, and his dialogue is funny, or profane, or chilling, as each voice demands. Herron has the full toolkit, and he builds these stories so tight you can barely find the seams where the pieces meet.

The cast shifts over the course of the novels, but the introductory character is River Cartwright, a young man literally bred to become a spy. His grandfather, affectionately known as the OB (for Old Bastard), is a former high-ranking official in the service who raised River and steered him onto the fast track.

Then a jealous colleague sets up River, and turns a training exercise into a very public clusterfuck.

The service demotes him to Slough House, where he joins a group of losers that includes Louisa Guy (lost a subject, resulting in guns going to bad people all over London), Min Harper (left a top-secret disk on a train), Roddy Ho (computer geek, world-class dickhead), and Catherine Standish (alcoholic), along with other assorted walking disasters.

Jackson Lamb tortures all the Slow Horses in this bureaucratic hell. He’s fat, he wears stained shirts and holed-out socks instead of a tux, he farts loudly to punctuate his insults and abuse, and he naps and smokes in his office all day.

As it turns out, Lamb is also a feared and legendary Cold War veteran who, despite his appearance, is still capable of crippling his opponents either physically or tactically.

Herron could have easily turned the books into a predictable comeback saga. In the hands of a lazier writer, River would be the brash young hero who reminds the grizzled veteran of what’s important, and together they take down the bad guys and save the world.

But that’s not how the world works. River’s impulsiveness, his insistence on doing the right thing, his arrogant belief that he is always right—all the typical characteristics of the hotshot rookie—are the traits that nearly get him killed, and risk the lives of the people around him. As much as it stings, River belongs in Slough House because he trusted the wrong guy, and that’s a fatal mistake in his profession.

More importantly, Lamb has no interest in being River’s mentor, or anyone else’s savior. He used to work for River’s grandfather, a kindly old man with decades’ worth of bloodstains on his hands. Lamb knows the people he’s murdered in his career were items on an agenda, easily forgotten by his superiors when convenient. And they dismissed him just as easily when the agenda shifted. He’s only survived this long because of his utter lack of scruples.

Lamb has seen through the great game and knows that everyone loses in the end.

However, Lamb does take it personally when the elite at MI5 headquarters, known as Regent’s Park, decide to use the Slow Horses as pawns. Then he emerges from the filth of his office and begins putting the world back in his preferred order.

Getting involved where they don’t belong

Slough House kicks off when Lamb discovers Diana Taverner, the ice-cold head of MI5, has taken his department completely off the books. At the same time, someone is murdering the former inmates of his asylum. The Slow Horses realize they have targets on their backs.

To be fair, this happens to them a lot. They’re often bait or cover for some ugly scheme by the higher-ups on the food chain, and they refuse to stick to their assigned roles. The Slow Horses are masters of getting involved where they don’t belong. Then the bodies start to pile up.

The high rate of workplace fatalities in their section might imply that MI5 had a point when it put them out to pasture. But it also shows the raw contempt in which their colleagues hold them. They are expendable.

This is another way Herron kicks the legs from under the clichés of the genre. Being burned or disavowed is supposed to make a spy more dangerous; he vanishes off the face of the earth, often in a private jet, before returning with high-tech toys to carry out his revenge.

Herron’s books usually leave the Slow Horses without cell phones or guns. They’re lucky to go into battle with a tire iron taken from the trunk of a car.

But just because they’re damaged doesn’t mean they’re weak. Louisa is possibly the most competent of the Horses, methodically assessing the field in a way she’s incapable of in her personal life. Another Slow Horse, Shirley Dander (coke addict), looks like a fire hydrant but turns out to be as hard as one, beating the living crap out of trained men twice her size.

The outcome of any fight is always in doubt in Herron’s work. Violence is unpredictable, and anyone can die, often in the worst ways possible. He’s particularly unsentimental about putting down a Slow Horse, even when (or especially when) they’re on the verge of redemption. If you find yourself getting attached to any character, or they start making good life choices, that’s probably a sign they’re not long for this world.

But Herron is not a cynic, or, at least, these are not cynical stories. He’s not casually spattering the pages with brain matter to show they’re serious. There’s a deeper morality at work here.

Maybe Bond and Bourne and Bauer and all their dollar-store knockoffs are so attractive because they’ve been given permission to break every rule. They have a license to kill, and do pretty much anything else, in the name of loyalty to their country.

But spies spend their entire lives eroding the concept of loyalty–and trust, and honor, and all the necessary illusions—because betrayal is their job. A good spy can betray anything or anyone.

Nobody can live like that for long. Nobody with a conscience, anyway. Jackson Lamb got away with all kinds of unforgivable things in his career, and look at the wreckage of him now.

It’s Herron’s way of reminding you: a whole life built on treachery and deceit cannot possibly end well.

Despite all that, as screwed and trapped as they are, Lamb and his crew are loyal to each other. This is why each book is close to perfect, and Slough House is no exception. They risk their lives and what’s left of their careers to save people they don’t like very much. Those are the moments when even a Slow Horse can find grace.

Herron’s spies are not heroes, and they’re not always good people. But they’re trying, and we hope they can pull it off, even though that would require a better world than ours.

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Christopher Farnsworth

Chris Farnsworth is the author of six novels, including Flashmob (one of PW’s Best Books of 2017), Killfile, and The President's Vampire. His work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, the New York Post, the Awl, E! Online, the Washington Monthly and the New Republic. He's also written screenplays and comic books.

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