Since Mick Herron is the International Guest of Honor at the 2022 Left Coast Crime in Albuquerque, New Mexico – a conference where I will also be the Fan Guest of Honor – I have decided to dedicate a series of posts this year to a deep-dive look at his most popular series, the Slough House novels. Over the next twelve months, I will be covering each of the novels within this series in chronological order, along with the various Slough House novellas Mick Herron has also released.
First up, Slow Horses. This debut novel in the Slough House series was released in 2010, immediately finding a receptive audience and critical acclaim – including being longlisted for the United Kingdom’s Steel Dagger Award.
Slow Horses follows a tradition of espionage novels but manages to also forge its own unique path through the tropes of that genre. Slow Horses works perfectly well as a stand-alone novel, with a story that has a beginning, middle, and a satisfying end; but it also is a novel that skillfully puts into place a network of important elements that will sustain the series for years to come.
The main storyline of Slow Horses deals the abduction of young man by a group of unknown extremists. The kidnappers are threatening to broadcast the beheading of this man live on the Internet. The newest member of Slough House sees an opportunity to redeem his career and slowly the entire agent-base of that organization becomes entangled in rescuing this victim, while also figuring out how his abduction relates to the scandalous history of a disgraced journalist.
Elevating this series and working to capture reader attention for the series as a whole are the elements that Mick Herron carefully laid while creating this “world:”
First there is the Slough House itself. This is a foundation that certainly opens up countless avenues of exploration, but one that also hooks the reader with how ingenious it is. In short, when a British intelligence officer makes a career-ending mistake during an assignment, they are shifted to this undesired branch where the tedious and mundane investigative tasks seem almost designed to drive them to resign, retire, or quit. But what happens when those officers elect not to give up and instead endeavor to do whatever is necessary to salvage their reputations and careers?
That framework needs a host of very interesting characters to fill it. In Slow Horses, readers meet folks like Jackson Lamb and Catherine Standish who have been part of Slough House for a while as well as newer “recruits” like River Cartwright. By the very location of their offices within the Slough House complex, readers begin to see bonds forming between subsets of this crew. Since many of these agents are disgruntled, there is also the aspect of in-fighting that helps to create internal stress that must be dealt with.
Each of these characters comes with a built-in backstory. These histories are complex and will unfurl slowly across the series. In addition to whatever mistake they might have made in that one critical assignment that changed the course of their careers, they also have goals and desires, friends and family, wants and needs. It’s the humanity in each of them that will appeal to readers and turn casual fans into Slough House fanatics.
Of course, Mick Herron knows that he also needs a few external enemies, so in addition to the kidnappers in Slow Horses, he also highlights the conflict between the Slough House folks and the more traditional factions of British Intelligence – MI5, etc. This plays into the plot of Slow Horses, but it also an important element for the series moving forward – casting the Slough House agents as a fringe (and sometimes rogue) group unhampered by the need to keep up appearances.
Mick Herron is often compared to the likes of John le Carré and Martin Cruz Smith. These are accurate comparisons not simply because of the genre and similar themes/topics, but each of these men write incandescent prose. Reading Slow Horses, there are some metaphors and turns of phrase that will take your breath away – both in their sublime beauty and in how accurate, simple, and understandable they are. Mick Herron knows how to lure the reader in and leaves them satisfied at every turn.
If you haven’t read Slow Horses, maybe the time in now. In addition to this “surveillance” series of reviews, Apple+ has recently greenlit a television adaption of the first two Slough House novels with Gary Oldman set to play Jackson Lamb. Also, if you are attending Left Coast Crime, you will want to be prepared for Mick Herron’s rare appearance at a US crime convention. So, why not read along with BOLO Books as we make our way through the Sough House series. Next up, Dead Lions!