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Mick Herron occupies a unique niche among spy thriller writers: leaving portrayals of sensationalistic exploits by larger-than-life characters to the followers of Ian Fleming, Herron favours instead the darker and more prosaic portrayals of spycraft made famous by writers like the late John Le Carré. But while Le Carré's writing is spare and typically humourless, Herron's writing is packed with an uncompromisingly dark humour: barbed and cynical, often dripping with sarcasm, a bleak message firmly embedded in his narrative.
Slough House is an outlier in the organizational structure of the British Secret Service, whose home base is located in the very elegant Regent's Park. By contrast, Slough House lies in the decidedly tatty borough of Finsbury, and is a haven for—what else?—the Slow Horses viewed by the Park as expendable assets in the world of spycraft. It is zealously presided over by Jackson Lamb. Supremely arrogant, and the living embodiment of political incorrectness, Lamb alternates his burps, farts, and various other offensive bodily functions with off-hand insults directed at gays, the mentally challenged, the vertically challenged, and pretty well anyone else who wanders into his purview. The denizens of Slough House include a coke head, a gay dwarf, a man framed for being a paedophile and having a hideously scarred face, and a woman thought to be dead, but who turns out to be very much alive, though the degree to which she has retained her former skills is as yet worryingly unclear. All of these unfortunates (and others) have managed to alienate the affections of those in command at the Park, who have consigned them to a surrealistic limbo that would give even Hieronymus Bosch pause.
In this outing the members of Slough House find themselves under attack, this time not metaphorically, but literally: someone seems to have them in his or her crosshairs, shadowing them for purposes unknown but clearly worrying. When Slough House spook Louisa Guy reports being followed, and Roddy Ho reports that the computer files on the denizens of Slough House have been systematically deleted from the Secret Service database, Jackson Lamb at first speculates that the suits at Regent's Park are simply using his staff as training fodder to develop their surveillance skills.
But it soon appears that something more ominous is going on: payback for the killing of two Russian agents on their own soil, in retaliation for the attempt to kill a swapped Russian spy on British soil. Using a highly toxic nerve agent known to be the product of Russian research, that attack had failed, but it left the defector fighting for his life, and a woman dead. The rules of spycraft are elusive at the best of times, but one of them is that home soil is off-limits: one simply doesn't kill another nation's assets on their home ground. So when this happens, the nation violated (in this case, Russia) seeks to even the score, and events threaten to spiral out of hand.
Students of recent events will find much that is familiar in Herron's tale, and to be fair, the bellicose visages of Nigel Farage and Boris Johnson and Donald Trump do arise from time to time, as do the more unruly populist movements found lately on the Continent and in America. For some, this will be simply an aggravating reminder of unpleasant memes gleaned from the media; others will read his references as a cautionary tale uncomfortably close to reality.
To say that Mick Herron is a dark writer is a little like saying Attila the Hun had difficulty getting along with others. One doesn't read his novels for the plot, nor even primarily for the characters, but for the bleak and jaundiced style that is as much social commentary as it is dramatic narrative.
Herron's caustic prose is peppered with witticisms. When someone enters a room and finds a varied group of inhabitants, he exclaims, "It's like the United Nations in here," to which Jackson Lamb responds, "What, a dosshouse for the weird and lonely?" and when a relatively young man tries to wedge his way into their ranks, Herron observes that "When they went on about sixty being the new forty they forgot to add that that made thirty-something the new twelve."
Herron's followers know more than to expect a quick read: the text is dense, and the narrative passages often prolonged. But to skip over these in search of action would be to miss much of the flavour, and the merit, of Herron's writing. SLOUGH HOUSE could have been titled Bleak House, but lamentably that title has already been taken.
§ Since 2005 Jim Napier's reviews and interviews have appeared in several Canadian newspapers and on various crime fiction and literary websites, including his own award-winning review site, Deadly Diversions. His debut crime novel Legacy was published in the Spring of 2017, and the second in the series, Ridley's War, was released in November of 2020.
Reviewed by Jim Napier, December 2020
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