Mick Herron’s Slow Horses is a spy novel with a difference. I suppose it’s a bit like Len Deighton’s The Ipcress File, which was part of a series made into films starring a young Michael Caine. I didn’t read the books, but the spooks in Slow Horses have the same sort of anti-heroic quality that Caine had as Harry Palmer in the films. He was an anti-establishment figure and a bit of a rebel. The film shows him making an omelette when the femme fatale visits his flat. An omelette itself was a pretty radical thing in early 60s Britain, but one cooked by the male lead protagonist in a spy movie was deliberately provocative.
The lead figures in Slow Horses are also anti-establishment characters. They work in Slough House – the homophone Slow Horses is a near pun – a run down office by the Barbican. This place is a waste disposal office for MI5 drop outs and failures – a place they are sent to file papers, carry out humdrum eavesdropping jobs, and endure mundane paper based research tasks. The hope is that they will die of boredom or resign.
There are lots of characters in Slow Horses, and they get introduced quickly in the opening pages. Sometimes I find this approach off putting – I’m not too good at remembering names. Here the writer successfully presents interesting and unique characters – each a failure in their own way, and each one’s failure a mystery to the rest of the team. These pen portraits are intriguing. I expect they lay the groundwork for future episodes: this is the first of a series, but it’s hard to say exactly which of the characters will recur in later novels. That’s a testimony to how even handed the author is in developing what might turn out to be just minor characters – and also a testimony to how rounded and well developed each character is.
This story revolves around River Cartwright, condemned to a life of drudgery. He is the offspring of an absent mother with a bohemian life style, and was brought up by his grandparents, one of whom was once a well regarded MI5 agent. Most of the book focuses on his experience, though the narrator’s omniscient and omnipotent, so there are no fancy narrative tricks to worry about, and he jumps quite effectively into any one’s skin when he feels like it.
Here we have an interesting twist on the islamic terrorist trope. Fascist thugs abduct a random Pakistani student from Leeds university. He wants to be a comedian, plans to do stand up but so far lacks the nerve. Internet posts threaten to behead the student within 48 hours – on the grounds of retaliation for previous terrorist beheadings and bombings. The race is on to save his life. As things turn out MI5 already have a finger in this pie, and one that’s not too legal. The student turns out to be the grandson of a Pakistani intelligence chief. In the end it’s left to the slow horses to sort things out. Can they rescue the student and purge the selfish traitors at the heart of MI5?
Well that’s a rhetorical question, obviously. You’ll like this book if you like high quality fiction with a bit of meat to it. It’ll keep you turning the pages, though you might find the opening, with its long descriptions of Slough House a little off-putting.