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Borstal for spies; Herron trips, feints and cleverly deceives the reader every step of the way

slow-horsesMick Herron’s Slow Horses, the first book in a series set in ‘Slough House’ a kind of transfer to the bottom stream for spooks from MI5 who have made mistakes, is stunning. Absolutely stunning.

This is a highly intelligent, tautly written, compulsive page-turner, with a plot as highly charged and twisty turny as any reader could want, wonderfully complex, believable characters, and founded in a reality which seems terrifyingly plausible. It is bloody, violent – and, at times, very very funny.

He was aiming for a carefree delivery, with about as much success as Gordon Brown

I have found my series to compulsively read on – book 4 comes out this year and I’ve been fortunate to have bagged a copy as an ARC, but, 2 and 3 will be read in order first – if I can stop the dizzy spin I’m left in, reading this one.

The unfortunate challenge of writing a review, is that really, there is almost nothing I wish to say about plot – or even the cast of characters, because the best way to read this is to know as little as possible about the journey, other than to make it.

thames_house_exterior

All that might be useful to know, is that the title, ‘Slow Horses’ is a kind of dismissive word play, accorded to the Z lister spooks, fallen from grace, who now work at Slough House. One and all, they were operatives who, for different reasons, had been attracted to the boxing-at-shadows work of MI5, recruited for their spook-needed skills, trained for this, but, in each case somehow failed the grade, dropped a catch, failed to tick the right box. Now, they all do the grunt work associated with counter terrorism, the endless checking of videocams, CCTV, paper trails. And all are resentful and yearn to be back at the high, respected levels of the job.

cctv

The only name I will provide is that of Jackson Lamb – as in, this is the first in Herron’s Jackson Lamb series. He heads up the crew of misfits, who have ended up here. Bullying, and shambolic, disliked by his subordinates and superiors, he is none the less as devious, intelligent, astute at pulling wool over eyes and mastering dissimulation as a spook must be.

He resembled, someone had once remarked, Timothy Spall gone to seed (which left open the question of what Timothy Spall not gone to seed might look like)

Having finished this one, I have no real idea where Herron might go with the later books in the series. My instinct is that we will certainly be meeting some of the ‘Slow Horses’ denizens of Slough House – not to mention the MI5 high flier section, – again, and I suspect different characters will, in subsequent books, come into sharper relief, and take place centre stage. In this, the closet parallel I can find is to the magnificent Tana French, who does a similar ‘Greek tragedy chorus’ effect with her Dublin Murder Squad series – each book focuses on different central characters in the squad, some of whom may have made passing appearances earlier, and are now centre stage, and may well pass through again in a later book, as a minor character in someone else’s story. When I first found French, I did a kind of total immersion and read all her books in the space of 6 weeks.

I can see myself heading the same way with Herron.

intelligence-equipment-procurement

But, I have to hold back from saying even the most basic about plot, or other central characters beside Lamb because Herron starts the dissimulation and confounds the reader’s expectations right from the start, and you will be best pleased to read as an innocent, without knowing or second guessing in advance.

this particular block seemed ordinary enough in the early morning, with its shared entrance and its buzzer system that blinked continuously. Only the sign promising CCTV coverage hinted at Big Brother’s world, but signs were cheaper than the actual thing. The UK might be the most surveilled society in the world, but that was on the public purse, and building management companies generally preferred the cheaper option of hanging a fake camera

Counter Surveillance EquipmentAll I will say is that none of the sleights of hand, the cutting between different stories all heading in the same direction, deviously and twistily, is a gratuitous authorial series of tricks, coinicidences too far etc. The territory of the book, after all is one where no one is quite what they seem, because the territory of intelligence, counter-intelligence and their friends and enemies is, of its nature – hidden, deceptive, shadowy.

However…..this book was first published in 2010. There is a remarkably foresighted view of the future, and a thinly disguised character readers will ‘enjoy’ recognising. I guffawed out loud on a silent tube carriage………….Of course, humour gets laced with horror these days.mick-herron

I wonder what else Herron is predicting in later books in the series, and sincerely hope book 4 (published in 2017) won’t have World War 3 in mid-throes.

Slow Horses Amazon UK
Slow Horses Amazon USA

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