Collection: Standing by the Wall by Mick Herron

Having now read Standing by the Wall (2022), I’m officially caught up with Mick Herron’s Slough House series, and I already miss it. This collection gathers the previous Slough House novellas, but also adds a new one, along with a previously published story. They’re just as enjoyable as the novels—although I was surprised they didn’t, as I was expecting, tie off the story of Herron’s sad “milkman” John Bachelor. (Perhaps his substantial appearance in Bad Actors was his send-off?)

Instead, the new pieces are neat, engaging Sloughverse standalones, both centered around a quietly intriguing throughline only hinted at in the novels—the secret, storied history between slovenly Slough House honcho Jackson Lamb and Molly Doran, the no-nonsense amputee in charge of the service’s analog archives in the basement of Regents Park. Molly is a service hanger-on who toils under the radar—another forgotten outsider, like most of Herron’s heroes in this series—and she makes numerous appearances, her position as caretaker of MI5’s obsolete records making her a useful contact for the slow horses. And she has the distinction of being the only person Lamb knows whom he doesn’t seem to actively despise—his merciless mockery of her disability notwithstanding. (He is, after all, still Lamb.)

Short story “The Last Dead Letter,” set around the time of Joe Country, details an encounter during the funeral of David Cartwright, during which Molly pries into Lamb’s memory to fill in puzzle pieces on former operations in Berlin during the Cold War. It’s a slight piece, perhaps, but a deftly structured flashback that will delight fans of the characters. More substantial, “Standing by the Wall” has a quiet, day-in-the-life feel, venturing to Slough House on Christmas Eve as the slow horses kill time waiting for the shift to end so they can ditch Roddy Ho for drinks at a nearby pub. Meanwhile, Lamb—haunting his upstairs office in something of a subdued state—enlists Ho to work Photoshop magic on an old photograph shipped over from Molly’s archives. “Standing by the Wall” is a perfect Slough House interstitial, imagining one of the many dull, endless days in between the adventures of the reluctant co-workers, but the core mystery of the photograph instills the scenario’s comic banter with an undercurrent of heart, getting at the broader mystery of Lamb’s epically intolerable personality.

Neither story is likely to serve as a gateway for readers unfamiliar with the universe, but they’re beautifully written, entertaining pieces that series fan will surely find essential. Hopefully, Herron has other plans for this universe, because it’s easily among my favorite series of all time.

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