Beating Slow Horses

Cast of Slow Horses, 2022

Brad East in The Hedgehog Review: The conceit at the heart of Mick Herron’s Slow Horses novels is simple. There is a house in London for misfit spies. When MI5 is unable, for one reason or another, to fire failed employees, it opts to send them there. The exile is permanent, though the losers who suffer it do their best to pretend it isn’t. It’s a win-win for the service, in any case. No one gets sued. HR is pacified. And banishment proves either so unbearably dull and humiliating that the misfit spies voluntarily quit, or they remain there forever, whiling away the hours without hope of redemption. It is said of the souls in Dante’s purgatorio that the unhappiest are happier than the happiest on earth. Conversely, the happiest in Herron’s inferno are unhappier than the unhappiest outside its walls.

After all, there is no garden atop this mount and certainly no Virgil or Beatrice. Only a hulking demon, pitchfork in hand, keeping the drudges circling beneath him. The paradiso of Regent’s Park is lost forever. Only after some time does it dawn on the damned that their perpetual expulsion means they’re in hell.

Hell’s name is Slough House. Herron has written eight novels in the series since 2010, plus enough novellas to make a ninth book. Two further standalone novels belong to the same universe, and a twelfth entry, set thirty years in the past that fills in the backstory of certain characters and events, was published last fall. Starring Gary Oldman, a series based on the books premiered on AppleTV+ in April 2022; the plan is to adapt one book per season. Three seasons have been released so far, and the fourth has already been filmed. There seems no stopping this spy world’s massive success, on either side of the Atlantic.

The novels have for years been hailed as the next big thing in spy fiction. Herron is sometimes called the new John Le Carré. His prose is stylish and funny; his plots are tight and unpredictable; his characters well drawn, in one case indelibly; his tone is unremittingly mordant. The conceit of Slough House and its slow horses is seemingly inexhaustible in its power to drive new narratives as well as comment on the absurdities of spydom and especially of British politics. The novels began less than a decade after the attacks of September 11, 2001. But in response to the global Zeitgeist, they quickly emerged from the cold shadow of jihad, the Iraq War, and the July 7, 2005, London bombings into the light (or is it heat?) of right-wing demagoguery.

Spy fiction always keeps its finger on the pulse of politics, or tries to, anyway. Even when the geopolitics are pure background for popcorn entertainment, the background is there and has to be intelligible, at a minimum. The better authors in the genre have something to say. At the very least, their protagonists and stories end up saying something—whether as a kind of intervention, in bitter dissent from the status quo, or as celebration of that status quo, or as wish fulfillment. This last type is exemplified in Ian Fleming, whose Bond series is more fantasy than spycraft: world building on a par with the work of J.R.R. Tolkien (in The Lord of the Rings) and Frank Herbert (in Dune), except that Fleming’s world is supposed to resemble our own. Perhaps, then, the better comparison for Fleming’s MI6 is to Hogwarts, with M and Q as peers not so much of Maxwell Knight and Kim Philby as of Dumbledore and Hagrid: a world within our world, a world we cannot see but which men like Fleming wished were real in the crumbling empire of postwar Britain.

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1 thought on “Beating Slow Horses

  1. In real life Jackson Lamb may not be as far from the truth as Bond or Bourne were but he was a brilliant creation by the excellent author Mick Herron. Nevertheless, it’s worth remembering Pemberton’s People in MI6 were for real and included characters who would have overshadowed the likes of Jackson.

    Pemberton’s People included Roy Astley Richards (inter alia Winston Churchill’s bodyguard), Peter ‘Scrubber’ Stewart-Richardson (an eccentric British Brigadier who tried to join the Afghan Mujahideen), Peter Goss (an SAS Colonel and JIC member involved in the Clockwork Orange Plot concerning Prime Minister Harold Wilson) and even the infamous rogue Major Freddy Mace (who featured in Hansard for all the wrong reasons and impudently highlighted his cat burgling and silent killing skills in his CV).

    If real scoundrels operating in the dark are your cup of Novichok then read Beyond Enkription in The Burlington Files espionage series about MI6. First though, browse some of the more recent brief news articles in TheBurlingtonFiles website. Soon you’ll be immersed in a world you won’t want to exit.

    Beyond Enkription is a fact based spy thriller and a must read for espionage illuminati and cognoscenti as long as you don’t expect John le Carré’s delicate diction, sophisticated syntax and placid plots. Nevertheless, it has been heralded by one US critic as “being up there with My Silent War by Kim Philby and No Other Choice by George Blake”. Little wonder Beyond Enkription is mandatory reading on some countries’ intelligence induction programs.


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