Novel: Slough House by Mick Herron

Mick Herron’s Slough House series is the perfect spy saga for our times, a brilliant encapsulation of the modern world’s failings and absurdities as viewed through the eyes of its unlucky, deeply flawed heroes. In light of that, it’s fitting that the novel titled Slough House (2021)—in fact, the seventh installment of the series—may be its best yet. Funny, serious, twisty, clever, it’s yet another effortlessly read spy-fiction masterpiece.

Coping with the aftermath of Brexit, it opens with multiple mysteries. Most pressing for Jackson Lamb is that Slough House’s very existence seems to have been erased from the security service database. The lights are still on, the gang who couldn’t spy straight are still at home—in fact, they’re even still getting paid. But why has all record of them been erased? Meanwhile, the ambitious First Desk of MI5, Diana Taverner, is up to something shifty with political schemer Peter Judd involving dark money and black ops. A right-wing populist movement is on the rise in England, fueled by Brexit and further stoked by an opportunistic media firebrand, Damien Cantor. To top it off, the slow horses seem to have been targeted by an enemy assassination campaign. Lamb, River, Louisa, and the rest of their misfit colleagues once again end up at the center of a confluence of crises, unlikely pawns on a cruel chessboard that long ago discarded them.

With any series that goes on this long, it’s difficult not to wonder if the author is resting on their laurels: relying on go-to tricks, pushing familiar buttons in the name of churning out content. Herron does have his crutches, after all, like the palpable glee with which he describes the awful behavior of Jackson Lamb and Roddy Ho. But damn, dude, Herron’s laurels rock. Yes, the dynamics of Slough House are characterized by mean-spirited banter amongst disappointed failures, but it’s all softened by the obvious affection and empathy Herron has for them—even as he glories in illustrating their failings. It helps, too, that between the angry antagonism of their dialogue, the prose is rife with confident wordplay, slick plotting, and eloquent turns of phrase. Herron may revel in the silly cruelty of the world’s evils, but he’s also insightfully aware of them, the scathing sarcasm and cynicism shot through with undercurrents of wistful tragedy. The slow horses may be failures, but they started out with ideals and good intentions, stripped away by circumstance. Against their luckier colleagues at the Park and the powerful elites who manipulate them, one can’t help but cheer for them to save to day, however unlikely that may be. Finally, Slough House benefits from masterful handling of the series lore, delving into the series’ past so thoroughly that one wonders if it weren’t initially planned as a series’ finale (Fortunately, it’s not.) It’s a smidge shorter than usual, but just as brisk, witty, and politically incisive, and even richer in its emotional effect, with an ending that’s a real gut punch. A sensational entry in the series.

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