Hell's Bells

Web of Intrigue meets Comedy of Errors in Mick Herron’s Slough House series, a deft (and at times daffy) blend of espionage and workplace humor. Herron offers readers a behind-the-scenes look at the bureaucratic ennui of a group of not-so-intelligent British intelligence agents. Imagine John le Carré or Len Deighton writing an episode of The Office: serious spy fiction infiltrated by water-cooler warfare. 

The titular organization is a special branch of MI5, England’s secret service. At Slough House, you will not find any George Smileys, James Bonds, Emma Peels, or John Steeds. Instead, you will find a particular breed of agents known as “Slow Horses.” These are spies with one foot already out the door. Too much of a liability to entrust with national security, yet expendable enough to keep on-board for menial tasks or to take a fall (when the occasion calls for it). Their backgrounds are a mixture of comic incompetence and tragic circumstance: Shakespearean fools and wounded souls. Herron populates his world with a perfectly balanced cast that allows for comedy without ever sacrificing the gravity of the situations at hand.

For all the laughs, one might be tempted to call Herron's novels political satires, but a ripped-from-the-headlines feeling permeates the Slough House series and gives them a sense of immediacy and insight. The plots chart a complex path, from a post-Cold War global landscape to a new wave of 21st-century terrorist threats, and a post-Brexit England that is divided by a dysfunctional government, conservative nationalism, xenophobia, and class conflict. Distinctly contemporary touches—such as foreign hackers and the use of social media to galvanize already the divided and incited masses—distinguish Herron as not only a skilled orchestrator of fictional thrills but also a prescient political observer of modern times.


***

Readers looking to dive in will have no trouble catching up with Herron’s crew in his latest, Joe Country (June 11, 2019, hardcover, Soho Crime). Those looking to start from the beginning will find five immensely entertaining adventures to catch up on. The first of these is Slow Horses, acclaimed as one of “The 20 best spy novels of all time” by The Telegraph. After bungling his first assignment, River Cartwright finds himself standing out in the rain waiting to nab the garbage of a journalist with ties to right-wing extremists. When a video surfaces online of a kidnapped Pakistani teenager threatening to decapitate him in 48 hours, the Slow Horses are off in a race against time, and River gets a chance to prove he’s not the bumbling idiot he appeared to be at first.

More than just a series debut, Slow Horses also introduces Herron’s playful writing style, a sleight-of-hand that challenges readers to read between the lines and look beneath the surface of any situation. Nothing is ever as it seems. Herron also favors short, kinetic bursts of activity that resemble cinematic editing (what a marvelous mini-series these books would make). Cross-cutting between multiple characters and planes of action, Herron keeps the pace lively and the plot always moving forward.

In its follow-up, Dead Lions, a retired Cold War-era agent, Dickie Bow, is found dead on a bus, with no apparent signs of foul play—which is enough to suggest foul play to Jackson Lamb. Bow had gone AWOL right before the collapse of the Berlin Wall, claiming to have been abducted by Alexander Popov, a phantom Soviet agent that no one could ever prove existed. To solve the murder, it is up to Slough House to solve a decades-old mystery that even the sharpest of agents couldn’t explain.

Don’t let the novella-size of The List fool you. The third entry in the series is one of the most enjoyable. When retired agent Dieter Ross passes away in his sleep reading Yeats and listening to Arvo Pärt, his handler, John Bachelor, thinks he has just crossed one responsibility off his list. And then Lady Di informs him that Ross had a secret bank account. Was he a double agent? What secrets did he spill? Bachelor’s attempt to cover up any wrongs before they come to light leads him, where else, but to Slough House.

The fourth installment, Real Tigers, finds all the Slow Horses gathered for a meeting. All except for one. Who has been kidnapped. And when the kidnappers call one of the agents demanding ransom, you can count on them to make all the wrong decisions. In the fifth entry, Spook Street, River Cartwright’s family heritage comes to light. His grandfather, O.B., has begun to lose his memory. While River is concerned for his grandfather’s health, others are concerned that he hasn’t forgotten enough and, in his dementia, might spill his secrets.

One of the elements that hold the series together and makes them so delectable to read is Herron’s playful, lyrical prose. He allows plots and descriptions to unfold with such pleasure for the words themselves. An early passage from London Rules captures the song-like nature of his phrasing: “Noon comes with bells on, because this is London, and London is a city of bells. From its heart to its ragged edges, they bisect the day in a jangle of sound: peals and tinkles and deep bass knells. They ring from steeples and clocktowers, from churches and town halls, in an overlapping celebration of the everyday fact that time passes.”

Never one to repeat himself, Herron also always finds a new, clever way to draw readers into the world of Slough House. In Slow Horses, he begins with a vivid architectural tour of the building on Aldersgate Street. In the CWA Gold Dagger winning Dead Lions, a cat makes its way into the offices. In The List, it is a long chain of characters foisting work onto someone else, underscoring the bureaucratic nature of spies and the low-level of Slough House. In Real Tigers, a “wandering spirit in search of a rest place” passes through the walls. In Spook Street, heat travels through noisy pipes. And in London Rules, a beam of morning sunlight sneaks in like a well-trained spy:

“In some parts of the world, dawn arrives with rosy fingers, to smooth away the creases left by night. But on Aldersgate Street, in the London borough of Finsbury, it comes wearing safecracker’s gloves, so as not to leave prints on windowsills and doorknobs; it squints through keyholes, sizes up locks and generally cases the join ahead of approaching day.”

While they might not be the world’s greatest secret agents, the spies of Slough House have certainly left their mark on the landscape of contemporary espionage fiction, and Herron has proved himself an innovative stylist.

Herron cleverly spins the templates of the spy thriller, and his style can bite with the wit of an Evelyn Waugh or Kingsley Amis.
— Tom Nolan, The Wall Street Journal
Le Carré looks sugar-coated next to the acid Slough House novels . . . As a master of wit, satire, insight and that very English trick of disguising heartfelt writing as detached irony before launching a surprise assault on the reader’s emotions, Herron is difficult to overpraise.
The Daily Telegraph

Mick Herron was born in Newcastle and has a degree in English from Balliol College, Oxford. He is the author of the Oxford series, the Slough House series, the standalone books This Is What HappenedNobody Walks, and Reconstruction, and the novella The List. His work has been nominated for the Macavity, Barry, Shamus, and CWA Steel Dagger Awards, and he has won an Ellery Queen Readers Award and the CWA Gold Dagger for Best Crime Novel. He lives in Oxford.

Read a Q&A with the author about London Rules.

More from Mick Herron