Novel: The Secret Hours by Mick Herron

There’s an improbability baked into the very premise of Mick Herron’s Slough House series. How is it, one might easily ask, that an office full of exiled, failed spies so often find themselves at the center of the action? It’s a testament to Herron’s ability that he’s done such a superb job spinning gold out of this unlikely concept. In The Secret Hours (2023), though, he steps away from the dingy offices of Slough House for a remarkable standalone spy thriller that ventures beyond its walls while leveraging its same universe and resonating with its familiar themes.

The Secret Hours involves a committee called Monochrome, formed to investigate the overreaches of the British intelligence service. Launched with the intention of holding the service to account for its clandestine crimes, Monochrome has been cut off at the knees by MI5’s “First Desk,” who has manipulated the independent panel’s access to relevant information. With nothing material to fuel their inquiry, the secretaries of Monochrome—frustrated veteran Griselda Fleet and increasingly jaded newcomer Malcolm Kyle—mark time conducting the hopeless task, waiting for an end to their administrative purgatory. Instead, they get a breakthrough, as a result of events set in motion by an assassination attempt against a former agent. Subsequently, a classified document ends up in Monochrome’s possession that leads Fleet and Kyle, in a fit of defiance, to propel the inquiry into dangerous new territory, opening a window into the service’s past.

Not technically a Slough House novel, The Secret Hours, while the author is coy about it, clearly takes place in the same universe. The prominence of First Desk—immediately recognizable as Diana Taverner—will clue in seasoned veterans that Herron is playing in his usual sandbox, even if he’s stretching his wings to fly beyond it. The offices of Slough House are offstage, but Regents Park is very much in it, as are numerous figures of the series, even if many of them wear the aliases of their secret lives. For an author known for neat tricks, The Secret Hours has a couple more of its sleeve. It is at once a sequel, its central investigation following on from the storied history of scheming, duplicity, and crisis that drives the series, and a prequel, examining in flashback the historical events that precipitated Slough House’s existence. As such, it’s an origin story after the fact, masterfully seeding characters and threads from various previous books to weave its narrative. This makes it a pure delight for fans of the series, who get to “decrypt” its sly, sideways approach to the universe. But it should also work for the uninitiated, whose view of the proceedings will largely be driven by Griselda and Malcolm, whose viewpoints will provide fresh eyes for new readers. Griselda and Malcolm, incidentally, both have classic Slow Horse baggage; indeed, it’s not difficult to imagine their careers spiraling tragically into Jackson Lamb’s grubby clutches. Either way you approach it, The Secret Hours is yet another superb entertainment from a creator in full command of his storytelling craft, his world-building, and his overall vision.

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