I Read Mick Herron’s SLOW HORSES (Slough House #1)

Slow_HorsesGah, this was good; I devoured it in a two days. After the first chapter, I promptly ordered the series. I am a sucker for good writing: clever, adept, no gimmicks, nothing *shudders* lyrical, clean, direct, and sarcastically witty, “noir-ish” dialogue. Herron’s writing is all of these things and equal to it is his deft hand at characterization and pacing, no sagging middles, or info-dumps. Everything unfolds in steady detail, BUT Herron also does something de rigueur in crime/thriller/spook fiction: no matter how seedy, rough, or disreputable his spies are, they have a moral core, battered but apparent “when the chips are down”. (I can see from review-blurbs, Herron is likened to Greene and LeCarré; frankly, I find their books a slog, but didn’t have that response to Herron.) 

Speaking of disreputable, the spooks who people Herron’s world are disgraced and exiled, who didn’t cover themselves in glory for “crimes of drugs and drunkenness and lechery; of politics and betrayal; of unhappiness and doubt; and of…unforgivable carelessness” (15). At their head, in the home of the exiles, in Finsbury’s “Slough House”, “an administrative oubliette where, alongside a pre-digital overflow of paperwork, a post-useful crew of misfits can be stored and left to gather dust,” (16) Jackson Lamb reigns, an overweight, lumbering slob with reserves of sly cleverness, sudden bursts of physical prowess, and a sharp, sarcastic tongue. What we learn is that like his “misfits,” at core, he possesses some, if not spark, glowing ember of moral rectitude. Like Diogenes, with similar unsavory personal-hygiene habits, the greatest cynic is the greatest moralist, disappointed in the world, expecting and finding the worst in humanity, but not in himself, and in Lamb’s case, his disgraced team.     

Into Lamb’s world comes likeable River Cartwright, who finds himself out of “Regent’s Park” and the achievers (spooks in good standing) and in as one of Lamb’s eponymous “slow horses”, discredited spooks who no longer work the field. They’ve screwed up, or seen something they shouldn’t, or been in the wrong place at the wrong time and are sent to Slough-House purgatory, forever to push paper and be assigned stultifying jobs. River is handsome, capable, smart, but while in pursuit of a terrorist in the London tube, he “mistook” the suspect, tackled the wrong person and let the Tube blow up with myriad passengers. Truly, River is “in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes.” But Lamb, River, and the rest of the slow horses, because the spook world is one of wheels within wheels of opportunism, betrayal, ambition, hubris, and moral decay, are embroiled in rescuing a young man kidnapped by white fascists who plan to behead him “live” on the internet.

I loved Herron’s storytelling voice as he introduces River: “This is how River Cartwright slipped off the fast track and joined the slow horses” (1). Herron plays the reader like the dial on a telescope, bringing us close to character, motive, and action; at other times, distancing us. I don’t know if this was an author not quite in control of his material, or in total control of his material, but I enjoyed it. Moreover, Herron is well-read and I loved his allusions, one of my favourites: “For Catherine Standish, Slough House was Pincher Martin’s rock: unlovely, achingly familiar, and something to cling to when the waves began to crash” (28). I love an author who can ironically use an allusion and let us know he’s working within a tradition. 

Herron builds insight into River’s character by giving us glimpses of what life was like being brought up by his grandparents, especially his grandfather, the O.B. (“Old Bastard”), himself once in the “Five” (MI5) and River’s inspiration and role model:

When River remembered his childhood in this house, it was always bright summer, and never a cloud in the sky. So perhaps it had worked, the game the O.B. played; and all the clichés he espoused, or pretended to espouse, had left their mark on River. Sunshine in England, and fields stretching into the distance. When he’d become old enough to learn what his grandfather had really done with his life, and determined to do the same himself, those were the scenes he was thinking about, real or not. And the O.B. would have had an answer for that, too: Doesn’t matter if it’s not real. It’s the idea you have to defend. (87)

Such a spare and clear paragraph about what might drive a young man. Yet there’s more here too; because Herron plays with, using his characters as mouthpieces, different “ideas” of England. There are the “Voice of Albion” kidnappers, who are right-wing, white-supremicist, immigrant-hating bigots, truly the “deplorables” that, years after Herron wrote Slow Horses, would vote for Brexit. There are cynical, self-serving, secretly-class-serving politicians, all bonhomie and glittering dinner-tables, who would have once happily colonized and oppressed, ice-cube clicking G&T in hand and sporting a pith helmet. There are the masses, moving to and fro from work to home to pub and whose lives, in the end, seem to matter more to the slow horses than the “achievers”, victims to the intheknow and powersthatbe.

When, at last, the “slow horses” gather to foil their enemies and save the day (because they do, even if the day, Albion’s day, is already lost in the cherubic face of a certain pale-scruffy-haired politician, or someone very much like him in Herron’s prescient novel) they meet in a graveyard. As they confer and rise to the occasion, they stand on the stones of the English dead, “nonconformists all”:

Blake’s grave lies half a mile or so from Slough House, in Bunhill Fields cemetary. It’s marked by a small headstone, also dedicated to his wife Catherine, and is out in the open, at one end of a paved area lined with benches and sheltered by low trees. The stone doesn’t mark the couple’s exact resting place, but indicates that their remains are not far off. Next to it is a memorial to Defoe; Bunyan’s tomb is yards away. Non-conformists all. Whether that was why Lamb chose it as a meeting place, nobody was prepared to guess, but that was where they gathered all the same.

As Tevye sang, sometimes, “tradition” can lead you to the right place. Herron’s novel delighted and entertained me, but it also made me think. High praise, indeed. I look forward to the rest of the series.

I read my very own lovely, paperback copy published by John Murray in 2017, though Slow Horses was originally published in 2010 by Constable.

21 thoughts on “I Read Mick Herron’s SLOW HORSES (Slough House #1)

  1. I thoroughly enjoyed this one and the next couple in the series and then I kind of ran out of steam on the series. I like knowing there are more of them out there, though: I think they’d be good train or plane reading especially. The recent TV version was also very well done.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m really looking forward the rest! I peeked at the series and I don’t think I’ll be able to resist watching. Esp. since AppleTV carries the new Macbeth, which I’ve also wanted to see.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I’ve not read this, (not my particular cuppa). However, enough of my ‘book friends’ recommended it that I grabbed it for my husband, who does like this sort of story. He loved it! He immediately went face down in the rest of the series and is now at the unfortunate point of having to wait for ‘the next one’ to come out. I’m glad you found a new series to love.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m glad to see that the H. and I now have a series in common, as well as the two of us! I shall join him in the waiting once I’m done with it, of course. And, speaking of waiting for the “next one”, the new St. Cyr is wending its way to me thanks to some generous gift cards from my students.


  3. Happy to have this positive review of Slow Horses. I watched the television series and loved it, and then I sought out the books. I was wary, however, of whether they would be as good as the show. Now I will take the plunge!


    1. Plunge away!! I too checked out the show and am about to click on Apple TV just to be able to watch it. I love Gary Oldman, he’s a wondrous actor and he looks exactly as I would imagine Jackson Lamb. I hope you enjoy them! The rest are wending their way to me from the UK!

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I’m a breast cancer survivor & I donate Platelets at the Red Cross & they give away thru Tango gift cards – so of course I choose Amazon 😉


    1. I’m glad you’re here, you’re reading, and I wish you many, many more years of doing just that. I will occasionally get a gift card from one of my students and it is sweet when I can buy books with it!


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