Most spy novels have a comfortable air of familiarity. We readers can take moles in our stride. We have grown up with cut-outs and dead letter boxes. There’s little we don’t know about angst-ridden, morally fallible spooks in raincoats and sharp-suited, gun-toting agents in casinos.
Mick Herron, however, takes a different approach from most other espionage writers. Real Tigers is the third novel in his ‘Slow Horses’ series. Its predecessor, Dead Lions, won the CWA Goldsboro Gold Dagger as the best crime novel of the year. The Slow Horses are a department made up of MI5 rejects — officers who have committed gross errors of judgment or made enemies of powerful figures in the organisation. (‘Persona non grata,’ muses one character. ‘…Latin for slow horse.’)
These misfits are condemned to a hell of clerical work in the depressing surroundings of Slough House, near London’s Barbican, in the hope that the sheer tedium will force them to resign of their own free will. Among them are a cokehead, a compulsive gambler, an alcoholic and a breathtakingly unlovely computer nerd. At their head is Jackson Lamb, a foul-mouthed tyrant whose standards of courtesy and personal hygiene have much in common with those of Superintendent Andy Dalziel, the creation of the late and much lamented Reginald Hill.
The Slow Horses yearn to escape from drudgery and earn their return to the Park, MI5’s palatial headquarters in Regent’s Park, which glows in their memories like the Celestial City. Their chance comes when one of their number is kidnapped by a disgraced career soldier, one of the tigers of the title.
From this point the novel explodes like a firecracker in all directions. Is the kidnapping part of a plot by the new but strangely recognisable Home Secretary — described as ‘a loose cannon with a floppy fringe and a bicycle’ — to emasculate MI5 and ease himself into No.10? Or is it the by product of a dog-eat-dog power struggle within the organisation itself? Or does the cashiered soldier have his own agenda?
The narrative flips swiftly from viewpoint to viewpoint, gathering momentum as it builds towards a terrific climax in an abandoned industrial unit in Hayes. Many episodes have a cartoonish improbability — there’s one scene, for example, when Jackson Lamb tries carol-singing and the nerd uses a double-decker bus as an offensive weapon. But it doesn’t matter; Herron, like all good novelists, manufactures his own form of reality and persuades his readers to subscribe to it.
The satire is streaked with violence, which itself has elements of visual comedy. The dialogue is sharp and the prose is dark and sardonic. Underlying everything is a sense of outrage about the corruption within the Establishment.
This is not the sort of novel where you’re likely to find positive portraits of Old Etonians. But if you read one spy novel this year, read Real Tigers. Better still, read the whole series.