Monday, April 12, 2021

All the Witty Horses

By Jim Napier
To say that Mick Herron is a dark writer is a little like saying Attila the Hun had difficulty getting along with others. One doesn’t read his novels for the plot, nor even primarily for the characters, but for the bleak and jaundiced narrative style that is as much social commentary as it is drama.

Herron’s caustic prose is peppered with witticisms. When—in his new novel, Slough House (Soho Crime)—someone enters a room and finds a varied group of inhabitants, one of his characters exclaims, “It’s like the United Nations in here,” to which another responds, “What, a dosshouse for the weird and lonely?” And when a relatively young man tries to wedge his way into the ranks of his disgraced intelligence agents, Herron observes that “When they went on about sixty being the new forty they forgot to add that that made thirty-something the new twelve.”

Slough House is an outlier in the organizational structure of the British Secret Service, whose home base is located in London’s very elegant Regent’s Park district. By contrast, Slough House lies in the decidedly tatty borough of Finsbury, and is a haven for—what else?—the so-called Slow Horses, viewed by the Park as expendable assets in the world of spycraft. It is zealously presided over by Jackson Lamb. Supremely arrogant, and the living embodiment of political incorrectness, Lamb alternates his burps, farts, and various other offensive bodily functions with off-hand insults directed at gays, the mentally challenged, the vertically challenged, and pretty well anyone else who wanders into his purview. The denizens of Slough House include a coke-head, a gay dwarf, a man framed for being a pedophile, and a woman thought to be dead, but who turns out to be very much alive, though the degree to which she has retained her former skills is as yet worryingly unclear. All of these unfortunates (and others) have managed to alienate the affections of those in command at the Park, who have consigned them to a surrealistic limbo that would give even Hieronymus Bosch pause.

In their latest outing, the members of Slough House find themselves under attack, this time not metaphorically, but literally: someone seems to have them in his or her crosshairs, shadowing them for purposes unknown but clearly concerning.

Jackson Lamb at first speculates that the suits at Regent’s Park are simply using his staff as training fodder to develop their surveillance skills. But it soon appears that something more ominous is going on: payback for the killing of two Russian agents on their home turf in retaliation for an attempt to take out a swapped Russian spy on British soil. The rules of spycraft are elusive at the best of times, but one of them is that home ground is off-limits: one simply doesn’t kill another nation’s assets in their own back yard. So when this happens, events threaten to spiral out of hand.

Herron’s writing is packed with an uncompromisingly dark humor, barbed and cynical, often dripping with sarcasm, a bleak message firmly embedded in his ominous narrative. Students of recent real-world events will find much that is familiar in Herron’s tale, and to be fair, the bellicose visages of Nigel Farage and Boris Johnson and Donald Trump do arise from time to time, as do the more unruly populist movements found lately in Europe and America. For some, this will be simply an aggravating reminder of unpleasant memes gleaned from the media; others will read the author’s references as elements of a cautionary tale that comes uncomfortably close to reality.

Herron’s veteran followers know better than to expect a quick read: the text here is dense, and its narrative passages often prolonged. But to skip over those in search of action would be to miss much of the flavor—and the merit—of Herron’s writing. Slough House could easily have been titled Bleak House, but lamentably, that latter title had already been taken. This is a book to be highly recommended. And the best news of all? Herron’s Slough House tales are soon to be released as a series on television. Truly, life is sweet—or should I say, sour?

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Jim Napier is a novelist and crime-fiction reviewer based in Canada. Since 2005 his book reviews and author interviews have been featured in several Canadian newspapers and on various crime-fiction and literary Web sites, including his own award-winning review site, Deadly Diversions. His crime novel Legacy was published in April 2017, and the second installment in that series, Ridley’s War, came out in November 2020. Napier can be reached at

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