One of the minor characters in Mick Herron’s latest thriller is an ‘espionage novelist whose recent decalogy about a molehunt in the upper echelons of what she referred to as the Fairground had her pegged by some as the heir to le Carré – one of an admittedly long list of legatees’. It’s hard not to read this throwaway remark as a glancing, self-deprecating self-portrait: in the universe that Herron has created in his Slough House series, the headquarters of one of Britain’s intelligence agencies is ‘the Park’ rather than ‘the Fairground’ or, as in le Carré, ‘the Circus’; there are only eight novels so far, not ten; and though ‘a molehunt in the upper echelons’ is fundamental to the fictional world that Herron has created, it happened in the past, as part of the deep background to the series, rather than being central to any of the novels’ plots as they unfold.
Val McDermid has called Herron ‘the John le Carré of our generation’ (a phrase plastered on all the paperback covers) and Herron acknowledged the debt, long before she said that, in the first Slough House book, Slow Horses (2010): one of the characters was given ‘le Carré’s collected works’ for his twelfth birthday by his grandfather, who told him: ‘They’re made up. But that doesn’t mean they’re not true.’ The grandfather, David Cartwright, aka the Old Bastard or OB for short, knows what he’s talking about, as he was the power behind the throne at the Park for decades. The grandson, River Cartwright, once a promising recruit at the Park, has just been relegated to a dead-end job pushing paper or sorting through the contents of suspects’ dustbins at an office known as Slough House, which is at least as far from the nerve centre in Regent’s Park as the Park is from MI5’s real HQ on Millbank, though nowhere near Slough either: it’s ‘an administrative oubliette’ on Aldersgate Street, close to the Barbican, where ‘a post-useful crew of misfits can be stored and left to gather dust’. It won’t come as a surprise that the misfits turn out to be rather more useful than the Park reckoned, and invariably end up antiheroes of the hour before the story’s done. Their stock complaint that nothing ever happens at Slough House, that they never get to do any real intelligence work, is less convincing with every passing novel.
The comparisons with le Carré have been even harder to avoid since Gary Oldman, who played George Smiley in the 2011 movie version of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, was cast as Jackson Lamb, the compellingly repulsive head of Slough House, for the television adaptation, which has been on Apple TV+ since last year (two books down, six and counting to go). Alec Guinness inhabited the role of Smiley so completely in the 1970s BBC version of Tinker Tailor and its sequel that it’s always slightly surprising (to me, anyway) when le Carré’s novels describe him as short, fat and balding. Oldman’s too smart an actor to try to upstage Guinness, and his performance as Smiley was a quiet homage to his predecessor, though not a direct imitation (and Oldman has shown over his long career that he’s capable of imitating anyone from Sid Vicious to Winston Churchill). But he has made Jackson Lamb entirely his own, to the extent that returning to the novels after watching the TV show I was nonplussed to see the character described as ‘Timothy Spall gone to seed’. In any case, it’s more as if Smiley had been thrown into a morass of radioactive sludge at the end of the Cold War and emerged twenty years later, coughing, farting and foul-mouthed, with a cigarette dangling from his lips and a bottle of scotch in his hand, ‘wearing clothes that looked like they were melting’.
Herron’s portrait of Lamb – and Oldman’s portrayal of him – is a careful balancing act. He may look, and sound, most of the time, like a washed-up ex-spy, a broken man, alcoholic, overweight, chain-smoking, abusive, sexist, racist, the world’s worst boss. But we mustn’t forget that earlier in his career he spent many years behind the Berlin Wall, and once a spy, always a spy: perhaps the offensive face that Lamb presents to the world is a form of cover, like a superhero’s alter ego, and beneath all those filthy layers he’s a lamb with a heart of gold. (Like a superhero, too, he can when necessary move with inhuman speed and strength, in virtual silence.) Then again, for a good cover to work, to some extent you have to become it: so maybe Lamb really is as foul as he appears. We can’t know for sure, because he’s one of the few characters whose point of view we never get to share. We only ever see him from the outside (in one memorable instance, squatting in an armchair ‘like a yeti in a biscuit tin’). Towards the end of Joe Country (2019), we see him through the eyes of someone who ‘hadn’t laid eyes on Lamb since Berlin, early 1990s, where Lamb had enjoyed all sorts of reputations, each of them circling one fixed point: you didn’t fuck with his joes.’ Twenty years later, his ‘joes’ are the slow horses, as the denizens of Slough House are known, because of the near homophony but also because they’re generally thought to be out of the running.
The productive ambiguity of Lamb’s character, or its double agency – he’s neither one thing nor the other, and it wouldn’t be quite right to say he’s both at once either – is part of what maintains the narrative tension through novel after novel. It also animates Lamb’s relationships with the other slow horses. Catherine Standish, the longest-serving of them besides Lamb, has the office opposite his on the top floor. She’s an alcoholic who’s been sober for several years, but Lamb never pours himself a drink in her presence without offering her one too. Everyone assumes he’s sadistically trying to push her off the wagon, but it could just as well be his perverse way of keeping her on it: if the offer of a drink is coming from him then he can be sure she’ll refuse it, and he is himself a constant reminder of the depravity she’s choosing not to fall back into. His unfunny jokes at his subordinates’ expense may serve a similar purpose, or they may be merely offensive. But he occasionally takes wittier aim at more deserving targets. When River suggests in Dead Lions (2013) that something ‘seems a bit … unlikely’, Lamb replies: ‘Tony Blair’s a peace envoy. Compared to that, everything’s just business as usual.’ In London Rules (2018), talking to an ex-policeman who now does internal security at the Park (one of the ‘Dogs’), Lamb says: ‘“I quite like cops. You know where you stand with them.” He gestured to Catherine. “Got a fiver? We could buy him off.”’
Fun as all that is, none of it would keep readers coming back to Slough House if Herron didn’t also drive his plots forward with as much efficiency and force as Lamb displays in his more active moments. In Slow Horses, for starters, the motley crew have 48 hours to foil a kidnapping before the victim has his head cut off, livestreamed on the internet. The twists arrive at just the right moment to take up any slack in the yarn: the victim isn’t who readers (especially in 2010) might expect; nor are the kidnappers; a double agent is hinted at, then revealed to be someone else; perhaps someone at the Park is somehow responsible for the whole business; the slow horses are put in jeopardy and turn out to be more capable than anyone would have thought. About the only thing that falls out fully as expected is that the abductee doesn’t end up losing his head (though someone else does). Herron isn’t afraid to kill off a slow horse or two in every novel, so a threat to any of them – Lamb as ever an exception – is always credible.
The source of the threat often turns out to be inside the British security state. If le Carré saw that the secret services on both sides of the Cold War had a shared interest in keeping hostilities simmering, Herron gets similar mileage from the idea of the enemy within: not in the sense of a mole working for a foreign power, or the way Margaret Thatcher thought of the miners, but of conflicts between ambitious actors struggling for supremacy at one government agency or another. In Dead Lions, Diana Taverner, head of operations at the Park (Kristin Scott Thomas on the telly), says to a subordinate: ‘I sometimes worry you’re going over to the enemy.’ He looks ‘shocked’ and replies: ‘MI6?’ She says she means her boss at MI5. It’s a joke, but it’s funny because it’s true. The exchange is echoed later in the same novel when Molly Doran, an archivist at the Park, tells Lamb she ‘used to wonder … whether you’d go over to the enemy’. Lamb looks ‘affronted’ and replies: ‘CIA?’ She says she ‘meant the private sector’. For River Cartwright in Real Tigers (2016), the Park is ‘enemy territory, and the fact that it was also headquarters simply gave it an extra edge’. The head of MI5 reflects later in the book that ‘the greatest threat to the Service – and her own role within it – seemed to be emanating from the home secretary.’ In Slough House (2021), Lech Wicinski, who joined the slow horses in the previous book, reflects that ‘this is the world I move in now. Where decisions are based not on the greatest good or the most just cause, but simply on fucking up the opposition, even if the opposition’s your own side.’
Herron repeats the successful formula he established in Slow Horses for the subsequent novels in the series, though with increasing variation as it goes along. After an action-packed prologue, which is often also a gleeful exercise in misdirection, most of the novels are divided into two parts, of around eight chapters each, with chiming subtitles: ‘Black Swans/White Whales’, ‘False Friends/True Enemies’, ‘Something like the Sun/Nothing like the Rain’. Part One begins with an imaginary visitor or observer – someone sitting on the top deck of a bus stuck in traffic on the street outside; a cat; a ghost; the office’s central heating system; the rising sun; a historian from the future; an estate agent; the wind – taking the reader on a tour of Slough House, and Part Two ends with the same imaginary visitor or observer taking their leave. In at least one of the books it rains continuously; in another it snows. The eighth and latest novel in the series, Bad Actors (2022), drops the two-part structure in favour of three acts with intermissions, a nod to the TV series, though the numbered ‘acts’ in the novel appear out of order (Two, One, Three). Philip Hensher described the book’s structure as ‘dazzling, Conrad-like’, and though it’s hardly Nostromo, and doesn’t pretend to be, it is a lot of fun and very well executed.
The series as a whole plays a different kind of trick with time. The gaps between the events of the books are smaller than the gaps between publication, but the action doesn’t get left behind as the novels progress; each book is set in the here and now of its writing (as you can tell from such markers as Brexit or Covid), so the past has to be relocated. A child who’s eleven in Slow Horses (2010) is thirteen in Dead Lions (2013) and seventeen in Joe Country (2019). Slow Horses may be set in 2009, but from the point of view of Joe Country the events of the earlier novel must have taken place in 2012. Herron acknowledges the slippage with a few sly jokes: in Slough House we’re told that ‘River’s brief tenure at the Park seemed a decade ago,’ when it’s even longer than that in publication time. A character in Bad Actors reflects: ‘The last hour had either contracted or expanded, whichever was the right way of indicating that it had happened in its own time zone, while other events taking place elsewhere had moved at their own pace.’ And in the short story ‘Standing by the Wall’, included with the paperback edition of Bad Actors, someone thinks that ‘the last few years … somehow felt like a decade or more, though obviously wasn’t, or they’d all be older.’
Time may be elastic, but place is less flexible. Unlike Jason Bourne or James Bond – the novels point out the contrast more than once, though as it happens there are similarities, too, not least in the Bourne movies’ portrayal of a secret service consuming itself – Herron’s characters don’t get to travel much. In Spook Street (2017) River goes to France for the day, the first time in the series any of the slow horses leaves England (in Dead Lions, River got as far as the Cotswolds). In Joe Country they go to Wales. But mostly they don’t venture beyond the M25. (Real Tigers ends with a Wild West shoot-out in Hounslow.) Several of these journeys make use of a car belonging to Roddy Ho, Slough House’s resident tech expert, who is inordinately proud of his ‘D-reg Ford Kia’, a non-existent, impossible car (it might as well have been a 1986 VW Honda), which the other slow horses are as quick to make fun of as they are to commandeer, and is perhaps Herron’s way of making fun of the kind of thriller that takes pains to specify the particular model of Aston Martin the hero drives. (It may also be a nod to Martin Amis’s Money, in which the narrator drives a Fiasco.) Elsewhere, though, Herron allows the real world to intrude in a way that doesn’t always quite work. There’s a politician in Slow Horses called Peter Judd who’s clearly modelled on Boris Johnson (‘fluffy-haired’ etc) and crops up in several of the later novels, so it’s jarring when ‘Boris bikes’ get a mention in Real Tigers (though they could hardly be ‘Peter bikes’). In Slough House, Taverner tells Judd that he always ‘wanted Number Ten’ and ‘now your mirror image has got there instead’; but it’s awkward, and unpersuasive, because Judd and Johnson occupy the same niche in their different universes, and there isn’t room for two of them.
Herron adheres to the principle of Chekhov’s gun, though the item in question often isn’t a gun: the objects casually introduced that are later put to violent purposes include an old Routemaster bus, a CD, a black cab, a kettle, a tin of paint, and – an actual weapon for once, though someone mistakes it for a letter opener – a stiletto that once (allegedly) belonged to Beria. The Secret Hours begins: ‘The worst smell in the world is dead badger.’ Seasoned readers – or anyone paying attention – will know that before long someone is going to make destructive use of that dead badger and its stench.
The new novel takes place in the same world as the Slough House series, though the dilapidated offices on Aldersgate Street don’t make an appearance. Some familiar characters do, however: some major, some minor; some named, some not. The unnamed First Desk, the head of the Park, can only be Taverner. And there are no prizes for guessing who Brinsley Miles might be, or what other names he might go by, when he’s introduced in Berlin in 1994: ‘He found a box of matches, and plugged the cigarette into his mouth. “Well, pardon me all the way to fuck and back. But just to make sure we’re on the same page, I’m the one in charge and you’re the visitor, right?”’
By the time Miles makes his appearance the novel’s already at the halfway point. It begins – the de rigueur action-packed prologue – among the ‘green lanes’ of North Devon, the location of the dead badger and an allusion perhaps to the sunken lane in Dorset used as a hideout by the hero of Geoffrey Household’s 1939 thriller Rogue Male (turned into a TV movie starring Peter O’Toole). In The Secret Hours, the man who’s been hiding out in Devon for years under the alias Max Janáček doesn’t seek shelter in a green lane for long, using it instead as an escape route – with a bit of help from the dead badger – to get clean out of the county. It’s notable that we have no way of telling, yet, whether he’s a good guy or a bad guy: such distinctions do hold, just about, in Herron’s novels, even if the good guys include Jackson Lamb. We’re probably rooting for Max, but should we be?
Herron’s games with time continue in The Secret Hours. Part One is subtitled ‘Devon, soon’; most of the rest of the story alternates between ‘London, now’ and ‘Berlin, then’. In London, an unnamed former prime minister has set up an inquiry into ‘potential misconduct by officers of the Service’ in an attempt to curb the power of the Park. But that PM and his special adviser, Anthony Sparrow (last met in Bad Actors), who bears a more than passing resemblance to Dominic Cummings, have fallen from power, and the Monochrome inquiry – already hamstrung by Taverner’s having blocked its access to the Park’s archives – is being quietly mothballed.
The civil servants responsible for running the inquiry, Griselda Fleet and Malcolm Kyle, could pass for slow horses if they worked for MI5 rather than the Home Office. Their personal as well as professional lives have taken severe wrong turns – Griselda’s ex blew all her money and more on his gambling habit; Malcolm has been turfed out by his flatmates and now spends 64 per cent of his salary on a ‘one-bedder in Walthamstow’ – and they’ve been shunted off the fast track to run this dead-end inquiry in an anonymous building far from the centres of power. Throughout the Slough House novels there are repeated references to the difference between Moscow rules (‘Watch your back’) and London rules (‘Cover your arse’). London rules make an appearance in The Secret Hours too, though they’re the civil service equivalent to their secret counterpart: ‘Never apologise, never explain’; ‘Never admit you made a mistake.’ It may be a different world, in other words, but it’s the same one too.
The familiar struggles continue at the Park: ‘We spend more time fending off threats from within,’ someone complains, ‘than we do defending ourselves from dangers without.’ The ex-PM with a ‘personal vendetta’ against MI5 may have ‘suffered the inevitable conclusion of his bin-fire of the vanities’ but the Park is still at risk from his replacements, who are keen to cut costs by outsourcing as much of the secret services as they can, hiving off sections such as Cornwell House (another genuflection to le Carré), the ‘mothership for auxiliary staff’. And someone, as part of one of those other struggles, digs a file out of the archive to send Monochrome some actual evidence of actual misconduct – which is what takes us back to Berlin in 1994, and eventually fills us in on some of the back story to the Slough House series.
The Secret Hours could, perhaps, reach that point a little sooner than it does. It lingers too long on the earlier witnesses to the inquiry, who supposedly have nothing of merit to bring to the table, but give Herron the occasion for a bit of satire that sometimes backfires. Why should it be such a ridiculous idea that a cleaner at GCHQ (witness no. 116) might have something of value to say, or evidence of misconduct? Witness no. 86 is a woman who used to belong to an organisation called ‘Millennials Against Oppression’ (geddit?) and had two children with a man she believed to be an undercover intelligence operative, though in fact he wasn’t. She did it, she says, ‘to lull him into a false sense of security’. As satire, this isn’t only heavy-handed but horribly misdirected. Dead Lions, too, appears unconcerned with – amused by, even – the ethics of undercover agents forming sexual relationships under their assumed identities. At least that novel was written before the abusive behaviour of the Met’s Special Demonstration Squad became common knowledge.
But when Herron’s satire punches up (a Cobra meeting is called in the early morning as ‘a traditional method of indicating the serious intentions of all concerned. We may not be getting anywhere, the subtext read, but at least we’ve had very little sleep’), or takes aim at broader targets (the decay of public life, the collapse of the idea of the social democratic state, the privatisation of everything), it hits home. And some of it may be gently directed at Herron’s own readers, in case we find ourselves taking his spy stories more seriously than we should. ‘It must be of comfort,’ a character in Spook Street thinks, ‘to pretend you had an understanding of how the world operated.’
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