Amongst the wealth of literary fiction and fiction nominated for prizes – specifically the Carnegie Medal and Women’s Prize at this time of year – I am often in the midst of worthy or issue-led or meditative novels, all of which I love. But at the same time I am also mired in a morass of marking and teacher assessed grading and work generally and I had been searching around for something more plot-driven to read recently.
And at the same time, Slough House was released which raised much excitement amongst some reading friends who looked to me incredulously with that “Have you never read…?” expression on their faces and in their messages. So I thought Why not? and stepped into the world of espionage and the eponymous Slow Horses, first in the series.
And what, you may ask, is a slow horse? A slow horse is a member of MI5 working from Slough House – an outpost of “Five” for the outcasts and the failures and the mistakes. It is neither a house nor is it in Slough, but as the joke about the etymology of the name goes, a discussion and gossip between spies that runs
Lamb’s been banished.
Where’ve they sent him? Somewhere awful?
Bad as it gets.
God, not Slough?
Might as well be.
So within Slough House we meet a range of MI5’s embarrassments, relegated to menial desk jobs and paperwork, cross referencing lists and online dark web chatter for example because Slough House “doesn’t do ops”. This is punishment for their failings in order to break their spirit and encourage them to quit rather than the paperwork entailed by being dismissed. It seems a world unfamiliar with the concept of constructive dismissal but, hey, it is fiction!
Herron introduces us to the location of Slough House and to its inhabitants (inmates?) in a rather unnecessarily quirky way. I was not keen on the opening direct address (“Let us be clear about this much at least: Slough House is not in Slough, nor is it a house”), nor the device of the putative “upstairs rider on a passing bus, delayed for any length of time…” gazing at and surveying the building to introduce it. Nor did the chapter in which every member of Slough House – every slow horse – seems to contemplate simultaneously and in the course of a single evening their individual falls from grace through a variety of faults: classified disks were left on trains; targets of tracking jobs were lost; alcohol addiction; suspected treason; assassinations. And for River Cartwright, a bungled training exercise that brought Kings Cross to a standstill:
‘You crashed King’s Cross.’
‘Twenty minutes. It was up and running again in twenty minutes.’
‘You crashed King’s Cross, Cartwright. In rush hour. You turned your upgrade assessment into a circus.’
James Bond, these are not! But nor are they Johnny English. Jackson Lamb who is in charge is formidable in even if he is also “a soft fat rude bastard, still dressed like he’d been thrown through a charity shop window”; River Cartwright who had crashed King’s Cross had been brought up by his grandfather who was espionage’s royalty; Roderick Ho was terrifyingly adept with a PC even if socially inadequate; Catherine Standish, the recovering alcoholic, was briskly stern and almost “Moneypenny”. Sid – Sidonie – Baker was effective and precise as a thief. This was a bunch of agents who may have blundered, but who possessed skills and could be a formidable team. If they could bear to talk to one another.
The plot revolves around a young man of Pakistani background – nephew to the “Second Desk” of their secret service – who appears to have been kidnapped by right wing extremists who promise to behead him live on the internet in 48 hours. Not a threat, a promise: there is no ransom demand, not extortion or political change demanded. Just a promise to behead him. And somehow this threat is connected to a washed up right wing journalist Robert Hobden and MI5 – the true heart of MI5 in Regents Park currently under the auspices of our “Second Desk” Diana Taverner.
Things become murky. Underhand tactics are suspected and deployed on all sides the upshot of which is that Slough House becomes embroiled in and accused of being part of the kidnapping, so a race-against-time develops in which our slow horses must rescue the kidnapped boy and save their own skins.
This really does feel like the first in the series: more of an extended establishing shot – an effective and gripping one, with an interesting cast of characters – for that series. Jackson Lamb and River Cartwright were clearly the standout characters. Although each of the others had potential which may well be developed in later books, I found many of them hastily sketched and quickly forgettable. In contrast, London itself felt very real as the slow horses found themselves outside Blake’s grave, the Globe Theatre, Regent’s Park, King’s Cross…
It was a decently written fun read – ideal for what I was looking for with a fresh balance between drama and humour. It did flag a little in the scenes that focussed around the kidnapped boy – Herron’s prose didn’t feel quite up to the task of capturing his horror and terror – and there was a little heavy handed use of stock characterisation – shock horror, a nerdy Asian – but it is a series I am probably going to return to, and which perhaps promises more than it delivered in this first book.
Plot / Pace:
Page Count: 336
Publisher: John Murray
Date: 8th October 2015