Mick Herron’s witty, thrilling, utterly addictive Slough House series continues with Joe Country (2019). At some point, this sequence will run out of steam, won’t it? Today is not that day; this is another superb, gloriously entertaining installment about the obscene Jackson Lamb and his band of exiled, misfit spies.
As Joe Country begins, the Slow Horses are haunted by ghosts—especially River Cartwright, whose service-legend grandfather has finally passed away. The funeral goes haywire when River catches sight of his father Frank Harkness, a disreputable ex-CIA agent whose treacherous schemes caused intelligence service casualties in a previous encounter. Harkness’s return triggers Lamb to activate his incompetent joes once again, in a bid to retaliate against the man who spilled blood in his shop. To that end, he sets River and the team on Harkness’s trail—which happens to collide with an off-the-books investigation by Louisa Guy, whose has undertaken a personal mission to track down the missing Lucas Harper, son of her former lover, Min. With the spirits of their pasts manipulating them onto the spy-world chessboard, the Slow Horses are destined to violently collide with terrorists in snowy Wales. There, some of their fates will be sealed—while the rest, secretly, are being quietly manipulated in the halls of power by the service’s new leader, the scheming Diana Taverner.
Joe Country doesn’t stray from the formula Herron has built for this series—but that’s if you even call it a formula. Herron’s recurring cast is so large and nicely developed, and he bounces through their viewpoints so effectively, that nothing feels repetitious. The Slow Horses, at this point, are like a dysfunctional found family, with Lamb the abusive father, alcoholic Catherine Standish the conscientious matriarch, River and Louisa the dominant, least-incompetent siblings, and the rest of the crew a hodge-podge of eccentric siblings. Angry, drug-addicted Shirley Dander, obnoxious Roddy Ho, and traumatized J.K. Coe are in fine form yet again, up to their usual neurotic tricks, while the Park’s attractive Head Dog Emma Flyte finds herself once again entangled, and an awkward stepbrother—Lech Wicinski, who lands in Slough House after being falsely accused of pedophilia—brings fresh blood to the mix. Herron juggles them with effortless dexterity, all set against a ticking-clock flashforward teaser: an opening scene that suggests that multiple Slow Horses will meet their end. The plot that delivers that turn is fairly simple, but there’s a paradigm-shifting undercurrent to it, driven by the interstitial events of The Marylebone Drop (where poor Lech Wiciniski unwittingly punched his ticket to Slough House). This quiet B story seems poised to propel the series into a dramatic new direction for the next book; meanwhile, the A story provides another bracing excuse to bounce around in the quirky perspectives of Herron’s entertainingly broken heroes. This series is a triumph.