It was time for some classic British spy fiction, and this time I stumbled randomly across Mick Herron’s Slow Horses (2010), which turned out to be the perfect pick. The premise is delicious: what if MI5 had a run-down, dingy office in London where it could exile its washed-up officers and failed recruits to do the service’s mind-numbering scut work? I’m a sucker for stories about losers, and even moreso for spy service office politics, so Herron’s fictional Slough House was a welcome destination.
Herron sets the stage intriguingly with a pulled-back, omniscient depiction of the grim little venue before zooming in to River Cartwright — a young, promising recruit banished to Slough House for failing a training exercise so spectacularly that it would have resulted in untold death and destruction on the London tube. River is convinced he was set up to fail, but may well have been fired if his grandfather wasn’t a legend in the service. Now he’s sorting through a journalist’s trash at the behest of his crass, unpleasant boss Jackson Lamb, a service hanger-on whose primary role at Slough House seems to be drumming out undesirable staff by annoying them into quitting. But there’s more to this pasture of fuck-ups than meets the eye, and Lamb has more going upstairs than his beleaguered staffers can see, which leads to River, his office roommate Sidonie Baker, and the other “slow horses” of Slough House to stumble into action. The low-stakes environment of their menial office job soon escalates into a race against time to save an innocent civilian and uncover a conspiracy.
Starting with a bleak, darkly amusing vibe — which might be described as ” what if Ricky Gervais’s The Office took place in John le Carré’s Circus?” — Slow Horses starts as an infectious slow burn, taking time to establish a dreary, amusing world full of fuck-ups and terrible co-workers. After a while, though, the story digs under the surface of its roster to flesh them out, explore their failures, and then throw them together in an operation that brings out the best in some and the worst in others. The higher stakes escalate things into more conventional spy thriller territory, but with an appealing focus on memorable characters and their interactions, which isn’t always a strong suit in this genre. It’s a bracing, enjoyable read overall, which propelled Herron onto my radar and left me anxious to return to Slough House — the denizens of which, I just happily read, will be dramatized in an upcoming Apple+ series headlined by Gary Oldman.