“Slow horses” by Mick Herron: “practise to deceive”

“Come, friendly bombs, and fall on Slough
It isn’t fit for humans now,
There isn’t grass to graze a cow
Swarm over, Death!”

This well-known attack on Slough by John Betjeman is the source of the name Slough House, in turn easily corrupted into “Slow horses”, the derogatory nickname of disgraced MI5 intelligence officers sent to work there on pointless tasks, until they are driven to leave the service at no further cost to the organisation. The particular failure of their slovenly, foul-mouthed boss Jackson Lamb has not been disclosed, but for his hapless underlings it ranges from leaving a highly confidential computer disc on the Tube, handed in at the BBC, to making a careless error when tailing a suicide bomber at Kings Cross, resulting in massive and costly damage. This was bad enough for River Cartwright to be sacked, but for the string-pulling of his grandfather, retired spook the “OB” which turns out to mean the “Old Boy”.

The narrative starts slowly, setting the scene and filling in the backgrounds of the main characters, but it is always vital to pay close attention, particularly in view of the author’s penchant for making an incident clear only after the event. Matters hot up when a young man is kidnapped by extremists who threaten on camera to behead him but nothing is as it first seems in this increasingly tangled plot. Mick Herron does not baulk at killing characters off, both good and bad, which serves to raise the suspense. As the slow horses get embroiled in some unintended consequences and real action, will then end up as scapegoats or heroes?

With shades of John le Carré and Raymond Chandler, I found this book a page turner by reason of the plot twists, wry humour and cynical comments on our society. Some readers may disagree if they are put off by a tendency to repetition, long-windedness, implausible moments and points which remain frustratingly unclear (perhaps a few loose ends are to be picked up in a sequel). The ambitious politician Peter Judd is an obvious parody of Boris Johnson, but is it wise to bring in current named celebrities whose names may not mean much in a few years? For instance, Jackson Lamb is described as “Timothy Spall gone to seed (which left open the question of what Timothy Spall not gone to seed might look like)”.

I found some aspects of the final denouement confusing, too rushed and something of an anticlimax. Perhaps it is a pitfall for elaborate plotters to run out of steam for a mind-blowing revelation at the end.

“Slow Horses” is the first of seven full-length novels in a series as at 2021. I believe it is best to read these chronologically, not least in order to understand the allusions in the successive books. I may read one or two more in a while, but fear they might prove “too much of the same”.

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