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Slow Horses by Mick Herron

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I’m late to the Slough House party, mainly because every time I try an espionage writer other than Le Carré, I end up feeling vaguely disappointed. The problem of course is that Le Carré is a cut above, not just fellow genre authors, but any writer you’d care to name from the last 70 years.

I’ve tried the Station series by David Downing; Alan Furst; Frank Gardner (god help me); Graham Greene; Antony Johnston; Stella Rimington (god help me); and any number of non-fiction authors. There’s always that feeling of vague disappointment, that it’s thin gruel, or all plot and no narrative voice.

Which brings me, sneaking in at the back door, to the Slow Horses party, and Mick Herron, “the John Le Carré of our generation”, according to a quote from Val McDermid in all the publicity material surrounding the now seven strong series. 

Excuse my saying, Val, but I thought John Le Carré was the John Le Carré of our generation? At least up till a year ago.

Most of Le Carré’s work concerned the activities of Six, the Foreign Intelligence Service, or the innocents caught up in their machinations. Herron’s Slough House is part of Five, the domestic intelligence service, one hop over from Special Branch, or whatever it is they’re called these days.

In my perception of the various services, Five were the flat-footed plodders in comparison to the high flying risk-takers of Six, who operated out of embassies around the world and stood around checkpoints in Berlin during the cold war, lighting cigarettes with an engraved Zippo, and waiting for some deep cover agent on a bicycle.

And this is the impression you get of the denizens of Slough House: the conceit here is that these people are so far down the totem pole that they’ve been exiled to a sub-branch of a sub-branch of the intelligence services, having fucked something up or pissed somebody off so badly that to be called a flat-foot would be a step up.

Exiled to a dingy, anonymous office across the road from the Barbican, these are people who trawl through intercepts and tweets, property records and transcripts, looking for patterns, anomalies, anything they could pass up the food chain for somebody more senior to deal with.

That’s the set up, but of course none of the above would make a good novel, so something has to happen and it does. River Cartwright, bitter at his recent exile, jumps over the wrong garden fence and it all kicks off.

Whether the plot fully hangs together, I’m not sure, but there is a lot of plot, and there are twists and turns throughout. It’s entertaining, holds your interest, and keeps you turning the pages.

But it’s not Le Carré. Take, for example, the occasional shifts in viewpoint. In Slow Horses, these p.o.v. shifts happen in the usual way: a paragraph ends, there’s the gap of a line, and the next bit begins with a different point of view. Standard stuff, and not badly done, but there’s not real sense that the voice of the narrative changes with the shifting viewpoint. This is not what happens in Le Carré, where his roving ‘camera eye’ will shift between different characters in the same scene, changing vocabulary and syntax as it goes, moving back and forth with the deftness of a close-up magician flipping cards.

You read Le Carré not (just) for the plot, but for the style, the narration, the sense that you, the reader, are entering the wilderness of mirrors. When he pulls the rug out from under your feet, it’s not just entertaining: he can leave you feeling the same sense of helpless anger and frustration that his characters feel, the same sense of injustice.

There’s a deadly accurate sketch of a Boris Johnson-like politician in Slow Horses, written in 2010 and all the more powerful because of what we know in 2021. You see him getting away with it in the fiction in the same way that he’s been getting away with it during Brexit and the pandemic. And yet, and yet: I’m not really sure why it’s there. It doesn’t seem to be integrated or germane in the way that Le Carré would make it. Obviously, I know slippery and ambitious politicians are germane to the shitshow of the real world; it’s just that Herron doesn’t quite convince me in the way he writes about them.

But I should stop quibbling, shouldn’t I? Le Carré is gone. This is entertaining enough that I would pick up another in the series, so watch this space.

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