John Murray | 2021 (4 February) | 320p | review copy | Buy the book
We have reached the seventh novel in this truly brilliant series by the genius that is Mick Herron. If you haven’t read the others (and I can definitely recommend the audiobooks read by Sean Barrett if you want to catch up), then Slough House does stand up very well on its own but much of its impact does come from having met before these extraordinary inhabitants of Slough House. Known as the Slow Horses, these men and women have been cut adrift from M15 for the worst of reasons and Slough House is where they go to fester, under the disturbing control (or manipulation) of Jackson Lamb, a man you wouldn’t want to meet down a dark alley even if he were able to squeeze down it.
Relations between the secret service agencies of Britain and Russia are hotting up – or should that be colding down? – and Jackson Lamb and his ‘team’ of spy rejects are caught in the middle. But, should ‘Princess’ Diana Taverner, now M of M15, assume that they are a spent force then she couldn’t be more wrong. They still have tricks up their sleeves. The Slow Horses are under attack again, with their number in severe risk of reducing further but, incredibly, one former colleague appears to be back from the dead, albeit probably temporarily. It’s time to fight back.
The Slough House series of books are must reads if you have any interest at all in contemporary spy novels and, incredible as it is to say as they are all excellent, this latest novel is in my opinion the best of the series. One reason for this is that the characters and the building of Slough House itself are now well established. I love how the novels begin with a tour of the House by our omnipresent narrator. These sections always remind me of Bleak House and set the stage every bit as well. These novels reek with the corrupt atmosphere of Slough House – the cigarette smoke, the mess, the flatulence of Jackson Lamb, the booze, misery, guilt, dejection and failure. All is contrasted with the refined and clean rooms of the M15 headquarters in Regents Park. But in Slough House we become more aware than ever that rot can be found in that location as well – corruption, vice and the old boy’s network. This is a world where an Etonian Prime Minister is trying to hold everything together and in which ‘Yellow Vests’ march on the streets, ugly and extreme.
Despite all of the problems and power struggles at home, there is a war on between the spies of the UK and Russia, triggered by the novichok poisoning that has left a British citizen dead. This is a fascinating starting point for the novel and the plot is involved, complex and gripping throughout.
We meet old ‘friends’ in Slough House, each of whom is dealing with their own problems, addictions, mistakes and griefs. Roddy Ho is as abhorrent (and hysterical) as ever but we spend much of the time with River, a man whose very blood is steeped in the secret service. We are involved with these people. Even Jackson Lamb excels himself (his potential for violence has never been more coldly shocking). But we retain an emotional investment in them. That’s the extraordinary thing.
Mick Herron is a brilliant spy writer. He has created an incredible cast of men and women, both the rejects and the powerful. His portrayal of Diana Taverner is particularly well developed in Slough House and I enjoyed her appearances – especially the scenes between Diana and Lamb. The books are witty and chillingly cool and atmospheric, as the reader strives to reach out to characters in very real distress. And danger. A great deal of danger. As always, I was left wanting more. These novels are essential reading.