Reviewers who make fancy claims for genre novels tend to sound like needy show-offs or hard-of-thinking dolts. So be it: here’s mine. Anyone who tries to understand modern Britain through its fiction but overlooks Mick Herron’s satirical thrillers merits a punishment posting to the critics’ version of Slough House. That noxious midden of a building opposite the Barbican, its leprous chambers groaning like ‘the internal organs of some giant, diseased beast’, is a sort of landfill site for failed spies. Herron first opened its flaking doors in 2010 with his novel Slow Horses.
Seven books later, his squad of borderline sociopath rejects from polite espionage has risen to the dignity of a luxury cast series on Apple TV+. But the sheer joy of Herron’s bunch of disgraced ‘weirdos and misfits’ comes not just from slyly booby-trapped plots and venom-tipped character drawing. Snappily paced, his comic prose fizzes with an epigrammatic chutzpah, softened by elegiac grace notes.
Meanwhile, magical thinking – or rather plotting – kicks in to ensure that Herron’s whipped underdogs regularly trounce the pedigree chums of privilege and power. If John le Carré’s secret agents played an almost gentlemanly ‘great game’ of Cold War subterfuge, the inmates of Slough House fester amid the debris of a chaotic new world order. Every division between ‘us’ and ‘them’ has melted into a rancorous, treacherous free-for-all of lethal office politics. In Bad Actors, a senior spook recalls the summing-up he added to the post-mortem on another botched op. It read: ‘Don’t use humans.’
Humans, alas, are all Jackson Lamb has on his books. He is the corpulent, flatulent, potty-mouthed ringmaster of the security service’s underperforming ‘slow horses’. Call him Falstaffian if you wish, although his repartee edges closer to Roy ‘Chubby’ Brown’s. In this outing, Lamb must outmanoeuvre Downing Street’s ‘home-grown Napoleon’ of a chief adviser, the ‘charmless bully’ Anthony Sparrow. A trophy ‘superforecaster’ hired by Sparrow has gone awol, while a top Russian spy slips into London as his Kremlin master grows reckless. (‘The closer he gets to the end of his reign, the more blood there’ll be in the gutters.’) Diana Taverner, icily scheming ‘First Desk’ on the respectable side of the spook business, remains Lamb’s go-to frenemy, as a tsunami-like ‘fetish for disruption’ rolls across Westminster and Whitehall. Herron’s capers reflect recent headlines as if in the trick mirrors of a run-down funhouse.
Mordant political takedowns alone would never give the series its legs. Herron, in Wodehouse or Pratchett mode, fashions a self-sustaining comic realm. His slow horses always screw up, but come good. They have a new recruit to torment – the dentist’s daughter Ashley Khan, whom Lamb greets by breaking her arm. (‘She’s still on about that? Bloody snowflake.’) In niftily choreographed fight scenes, the crew battle Sparrow’s thugs in Wimbledon and Dorset, though as ever it’s the line-by-line hits of patter and backchat – part-Noël Coward, part-Joe Orton – that spritz every page. ‘He’s a treasure,’ says Lamb about the tragic incel hacker Roddy Ho, one of his fallen stars: ‘I plan to bury him someday.’ Whereas Herron’s own tarnished stones look good to roll for many episodes to come.
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