Mick Herron has been called ‘the John le Carré of his generation’ by the crime writer Val McDermid, and in the 11 years since the first of his ‘Slough House’ novels appeared they have become a best-selling phenomenon. Herron echoes le Carré’s horror at Brexit, which in this latest instalment is only referred to as ‘You-Know-What’. Slough House is, in fact, nowhere near the Berkshire town but an office building close to the Barbican, and no less drab for it. This is where a bunch of ‘slow horses’, spies who have blotted their copybooks in various ways, nominally work.
Herron has said: ‘Failures are more interesting than successes: they have all that regret, they act out, they feel thwarted and frustrated, not fun to live but great fun to write about.’ He certainly appears to be having great fun in Slough House, the seventh novel in the series, and his enjoyment is rarely at the expense of the reader’s. But he occasionally overdoes it in his portrayal of Jackson Lamb as the most flatulent and misanthropic of the slow horses. We could probably all have lived without six descriptions of the anti-hero breaking wind: ‘He farted, a three-note trumpet solo, then eased his buttock back onto the bench.’ Lamb is set to be played by Gary Oldman in an Apple TV series and it will be interesting to see how the Oscar-winning method actor approaches this. And Lamb describes a character with dwarfism as a ‘lawn ornament’ with possibly a little too much relish. But on the whole, the verve with which Herron writes carries the reader along.
Diana Taverner, the steely head of the service, authorises a hit in Kazan in response to a Novichok poisoning which earns her the approval of Peter Judd, a former home secretary now working in PR. Judd resembles Boris Johnson so closely that one wonders how Herron had the nerve, not least when we are told ‘his clowning masked a laser-like focus on his own best interests’. After Judd makes a speech praising Taverner, this exchange takes place, begun by her: ‘“I nearly got an erection there.” “Me too.”’ The yellow vest movement makes an appearance too. But the ways in which the slow horses have wrecked their careers is the real star of the show, from alcoholism to being framed for someone else’s mistake.
It should not be overlooked that Herron is capable of writing with great tenderness, particularly when a character is described as looking like ‘his evening had already gone wrong in some unspecified way, and he was waiting for it to go more wrong differently’.