Written by Mick Herron — In October 2013, Mick Herron picked up the CWA Goldsboro Gold Dagger for his espionage thriller Dead Lions. Here on Crime Fiction Lover we agreed, and awarded the quirky espionage thriller five stars in our review. With such recognition for the author in place, Soho Press has now published the paperback of the first of Herron’s Slough House series which is entitled Slow Horses.
Slough House – as in, ‘so dead you might as well be in Slough’ – is where MI5 sends its agents who have screwed up so monumentally that the service wants them to resign. It’s the spy world’s version of constructive dismissal. Embarrassments include alcoholism, leaving decrypted information on the London Underground, and causing King’s Cross to close in what is only supposed to be a training exercise. Each of the slow horses consigned to Slough House still harbours ambitious dreams to return to the promised land of Regent’s Park – where the serious agents work – even though they know no-one has ever managed it before.
The endless days of tedious and humiliating work here in Slow Horses are interrupted by the abduction of a young British man. His captors issue a threat, live on the internet, to behead him. River Cartwright sees this as an opportunity to revive his career in the intelligence service, which currently consists of transcribing mobile phone conversations at Slough House. Though the MO being used is usually that of Islamic fundamentalists, it soon becomes apparent that the victim is a Muslim and his captors are members of an obscure and previously unheralded far-right group of British nationalists.
The young man turns out to be related to the head of Pakistan Intelligence. Is it a co-incidence that such an amateurish bunch could capture such a high-value target, or does this level of planning point towards the murky waters of international espionage? For the slow horses of Slough House, events take an interesting turn when the kidnapping group are linked to a disgraced journalist that MI5 has been investigating.
Cautiously they try to involve themselves in the manhunt but are blocked by their superiors in the service. That their interest is unwelcome is made even clearer when River Cartwright is attacked in his office at Slough House by a masked intruder who turns out to be an ex-slow horse thought to have died the year before. With a dead spook on their hands and the growing realisation just how expendable they are, the slow horses can hear the clock ticking as they realise saving the young man is the only way to save their own liberty.
If anything Slow Horses is an even stronger book than Dead Lions, the War on Terror and its execution providing a deliciously ripe target for satire. The planning behind the abduction is all the more horrifying for its credibility. Herron captures perfectly the sense of panic and the consequences of decision-making made on the hoof as events spiral out of control.
The humour and satire make for a very different kind of read to the spy novels of say John LeCarre or Len Deighton and their topicality may eventually date them, but for now Herron’s Slough House series is ahead of the pack.
CFL Rating: 5 Stars