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by Mick Herron
Soho, January 2016
352 pages
ISBN: 1616956127

Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

North American readers who have seen the original UK version of The Office or those who are now watching You, Me, and the Apocalypse will have a pretty fair idea of why the premises for disgraced secret service agents in Mick Herron's series is called Slough House. And it's not because it's in Slough. It's in Finsbury, London, to be precise and it's where disgraced, inadequate, or failed spies are exiled in the hope that they will die of boredom. It is the "administrative oubliette of the Intelligence Services."

This third in the series detailing the failed attempts of the Slough House exiles to work their way back into the good graces of the powers-that-be in the Service opens with a marvellous three-page description of the premises that Dickens would not be ashamed to claim. It should be quoted in its gorgeous fullness,

but here's how it starts:

On a night hot as hell in the borough of Finsbury a door opens and a woman steps into a yard. Not the front street - this is Slough House, and the front door of Slough House famously never opens, never closes - but a yard that sees little natural light, and whose walls are consequently fuzzy with mildew. The odour is of neglect whose constituent humours, with a little effort, can be made out to be food and fats from the takeaway, and stale cigarettes, and long-dried puddles, and something rising from the drain that gurgles in a corner and is best not investigated closely. It is not yet dark - it is the violet hour - but already the yard is shadowy with night. The woman doesn't pause there. There is nothing to see.

The spirit of Dickens tiptoes off, only to reappear occasionally in the course of the narrative. What takes over is a kind of post-Le Carré cynicism, shot through with frequent flashes of mordant humour. The plot involves an internal struggle within the Intelligence Service and Whitehall itself, a struggle in which the "slow horses" of Slough House have their own role to play, however unwitting it may be.

Those horses may be slow but they are not helpless, especially in close-quarter combat. They may not have grasped the bigger picture, but they are alert to the smaller one that involves their own continued existence and will fight to survive both physically and professionally. In the battle between Machiavellian manipulation and misdirection on the one hand and down-and-dirty self-preservation on the other, the slow horses are far from outmatched. The revelation at the climax that they are real tigers after all is a wondrous thing.

I am sorry that I have not read the previous two books in this series, an oversight that I intend to remedy as soon as possible. Slough House is a marvellous invention (at least, let us hope it is an invention).

§ Yvonne Klein is a writer, translator, and retired college English professor who lives in Montreal.

Reviewed by Yvonne Klein, January 2016

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)

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