The ‘Slough House’ Series Lets Spies Be The Losers They Are
11:02 AM EDT on September 13, 2023
Mick Herron’s Slough House series of novels, set in present day Britain both before and in the wake of Brexit, turns on a specific kind of castaway. At the heart of Slough House, the unremarkable building on Aldersgate Street on the west side of the Barbican residential complex, a crew of fuck-ups sit around all day, stewing, pushing paper, plotting their comebacks. Slough House is about MI5 spies who aren’t washed up so much as gleefully discarded. They are known, pejoratively, as “slow horses.” On paper, these are capable agents, some still in the prime of their youth, except for the fact that they made one huge mistake: leaving top secret documents on the train, punching a colleague, failing to stop a terrorist bombing, losing track of a suspect who subsequently let illegal firearms onto the streets, failing to stop a superior’s suicide. Or, in the case of one of Herron’s favorite characters, Roddy Ho, being an annoying asshole. A decent number of these agents, disciplined as they are in various fields of espionage, battle with addiction: gambling, alcohol, cocaine.
Through a close third-person omniscient POV that constantly switches between characters every few pages, Herron paints detailed, melancholic portraits. River Cartwright, the kid who failed to stop a bombing, is the grandson of an MI5 legend and the kind of preppy try-hard who feels, with fair reason, that he’s meant for more than the dusty office he’s been relegated to. He has no love life, his largely ambivalent mother is rarely around, his completely absent father later turns out to be a psychotic killer, and his grandfather is slowly surrendering to senility. Louisa Guy, one of the few truly capable agents in Slough House, harbors a dour, pessimistic worldview, one that springs from having opened herself up one too many times, most recently to a fellow slow horse with whom she had an affair and who was subsequently murdered by Russian thugs in the line of duty. Catherine Standish, my personal favorite, the first slow horse, is the reluctantly maternal glue in a group full of selfish whiners. She’s been whiling away her time at Slough House in the wake of her boss’s suicide and, after a hard bout at rock bottom, in the wake of her sobriety.
There are other characters who join, or get thrown into, the fold. Some make it through to the next installment. Just as many don’t. One of Herron’s gifts as a writer is his ability to instill a sense of understanding for each member of the Slough House crew, which allows for everyone’s flaws to take center stage. I wouldn’t necessarily call this empathy. Rather, Herron writes his action and his characters with a supreme, sometimes paradoxically detached eye. Every Slough House novel begins with a Dickensian journey through each floor of Slough House, sometimes following a mouse, or a stranger, or a ghost, even the very concept of night. Herron, like so few writers, revels in a playful, almost plastic voice that renders the mundane thrumming with linguistic potential:
Where the greenery bends over standing water, frogs hide. After dark, there are bats. So it would be no surprise if a cat dropped in front of our eyes from one of the Barbican towers and froze as it hit the bricks; looking all directions at once without moving its head, as cats can. It’s a Siamese. Pale, short-haired, slant-eyed, slender and whispery; able, like all its kind, to slip through doors barely open and windows thought shut, and it’s only frozen for a moment. Then it’s off.
Herron does this for all of his characters, whether main cast or passerby, allowing for all manner of exposition and revelation. While, for instance, Herron might stick with Roddy Ho for a section, he will also highlight Ho’s supreme lack of self awareness by simply taking on the character’s assumptions and biases. Namely, that Ho is an irresistible sexual being who makes every woman in Slough House mad with lust. It’s only through the extremity of this thought process that the reader sees how delusional Ho is. This makes for alternately irritating and thrilling dramatic irony. In the fifth book, London Rules (Herron has maintained a two-word titling convention throughout the series: Slow Horses, Dead Lions, Joe Country, Spook Street, etc.), Roddy Ho gets taken in for questioning at Regent’s Park, the headquarters of MI5, ruled by the ambitious, backstabbing Diana Taverner. Lady Di, as she’s known, is a girl boss in the mold of Miranda Priestly. She’s a formidably clever and ruthless leader who is nonetheless constantly underestimating her rivals. She attempts to sweat Ho out in one of Regent’s Park’s many underground interrogation rooms. Except, from Ho’s perspective, MI5 is finally showing him the respect a genius agent like himself deserves, protecting him from threats and providing him with a safe house.
The machinations of the Slough House universe take place in a recognizably fractured present-day England. The Cold War looms large in Herron’s novels, just as WWII once loomed large for the agents, like River Cartwright’s grandfather, who were able to thrive in an environment of supposedly clear-cut good guys and villains. John le Carré fashioned George Smiley, a worn-out and guileless grump who fights with his own sense of fraudulence by sublimating those feelings into a life in espionage, out of the anxieties of a Britain that was clawing its way out of the Cold War’s seemingly eternal thaw. For Herron’s purposes, the Cold War, messy as it was, cemented the very rules by which all agents still play in the field. If there’s no nostalgia for that time, there’s at least a sense that things moved a little slower, that threats came from fewer directions. The world has since opened up and, in the place of Nazis, Soviet goons, and fascists, we now have Nazis, Russian goons, and fascists. It would be a mistake to situate Herron in the same house as Le Carré, though the comparison is often made, not because one is more talented than the other but because Herron’s interest and expertise in global politics is glancing. Herron was never a spy, and was never involved in any kind of British intelligence. He copy-edited articles on employment discrimination before becoming a writer. But part of what makes his fiction so entertaining and substantive is his palpable disdain for the bureaucracy and narcissism of British politics.
Which means we finally get to the sweating, farting, snoring, foul-mouthed head of Slough House itself, Jackson Lamb. Lamb, once a legendary Cold War agent who saw his fair share of death and betrayal, lords over the slow horses like mold on bread. His office, perpetually dark, perpetually filthy, sits on the top floor, where he is either napping, drinking, eating, or smoking. In the Apple TV+ adaptation, Slow Horses, Lamb is played by Gary Oldman, in many ways the role Oldman was born to take on. Lamb is not necessarily a stand-in for Herron. Admirably, Herron seems to sprinkle a bit of himself around all his characters. But Lamb is the series’ stuttering heart. No one knows more about MI5’s dirty secrets than Lamb, and no one seems less motivated to do anything to protect the Commonwealth than him. He’s jaded, tired, and skeptical of anyone higher up the food chain than him, with good reason. And he knows, better than any of the slow horses, that there is no redemption waiting for them at the end of a job well done. Mostly because the slow horses never do anything right (it’s hilarious and gutting how often they literally fall on their faces right before doing something heroic). Whenever they have the opportunity to spring into action, to follow leads deemed too far-fetched for Regent’s Park or too shadowy to be officially acknowledged, Lamb cheerfully, scathingly berates his team. In an era of anxious political correctness, Lamb revels in his impunity. “I hope you don’t think I’m insulting you,” Lambs says to Roddy Ho at one point. “Because when that happens, you’ll know all about it, you slanty-eyed twat.”
Over the course of eight books (so far) and two television seasons (so far), Herron’s world reveals itself to be both more and less than our own. Conspiracy theories lurk around every corner, but the spectacular ones turn out to be smoke and mirrors for the genuine articles. Defeat is handed down from the top, and players are shuffled off the board to hide the transgressions of politicians or make room for more powerful operators. The function of Slough House is to make its inhabitants quit, to subject them to the most boring, pointless tasks under the most vile of bosses so that Regent’s Park won’t have to file the requisite paperwork and pay their retirement out. Every now and again, Lady Di will dangle the tantalizing possibility of coming back into the field, but Lamb knows that this will never happen. Meanwhile, Britain is straining against the confines of its own solipsism, nationalists duking it out with liberals, an old and pock-marked country that never changes the way its citizens want it to.
What makes the Slough House world so enjoyable is precisely the fact that it is so unsatisfying. Herron writes the kind of page-turning thriller that only gets worse and more dangerous for his characters, the kind where going it alone can mean certain death, and where certain death can come from a can of paint accidentally kicked off the roof of a building. There is genuine surprise in Slough House, and doses of pathos. Beneath Lamb’s disgusting exterior lies fear, anger, and loyalty. His open animosity towards his agents comes from his desire for them to leave so that they won’t get killed. And when someone, anyone, threatens their lives, God help the person who thinks they can outsmart him. In this way, Herron offers all of the requisite pleasures of the spy genre—foot chases and gun fights and code words and sleeper cells and secret lairs and grand, evil plans—all undercut by the fact that, come morning, the whole lot will be swept under the rug. The end result is not paranoia or fear-mongering, but a lament for that which gets snuffed out by the drudgery of daily life: friendship, generosity, trust, hope. In Slough House, dreams of returning to former glory are constantly thwarted and, time and again, whether through delusions of grandeur, selfishness, or genuine concern, the slow horses have to figure out a way to have each other’s backs. Through the muck of modern geopolitics, betrayal, greed, and ambivalence, there are brief glimpses of the other side.