Dickie Bow is not an obvious target for assassination.
But once a spook, always a spook. And Dickie was a talented streetwalker back in the day, before he turned up dead on a bus. A shadow. Good at following people, bringing home their secrets.
Dickie was in Berlin with Jackson Lamb. Now Lamb’s got his phone, and on it the last secret Dickie ever told, and reason to believe an old-time Moscow-style op is being run in the Service’s back-yard.
In the Intelligence Service purgatory that is Slough House, Jackson Lamb’s crew of back-office no-hopers is about to go live . . .amazon.co.uk
Amidst all the ARCs and Booker nominees – and especially as I was stuck in a car for hours as we drove down to see my parents which is not my favourite place to read – a fun and entertaining novel was called for and Herron’s series, to which I am very late in the day, fitted the bill perfectly.
Mind you, I am not the only one who took their time coming across this series: Dead Lions wasn’t able to find a UK publisher for years and sank without a trace initially according to The Guardian, and Waterstones made Slow Horses their thriller of the month seven years after it first publication. They have a charming interview with Herron here.
Charming, however, is not the word that comes to mind when considering the dysfunctional failures that make up the spooks in Slough House who return to the pages of this novel after surviving the first one. Catherine Standish, Louisa Guy and Min Harper, Frederick Ho and River Cartright all return to the disgrace and tedium of being a slow horse – and their ranks are swelled by the new recruits of Marcus Longridge and Shirley Dander. Jackson Lamb presides over them as an unlikeable, repellent, corpulent and flatulent toad – and he has not improved since the first novel. If anything Lamb is more horrific here. There is one moment that nearly made me stop reading the book and give up: he doesn’t just drink in front of the recovering alcoholic Catherine; he doesn’t just offer her a drink; he pours and places a drink in front of her!
The plot here did stretch credibility a little but was, I felt, a little more coherent than the first one: a old retired spy – the incongruously named Dickie Bow – was found dead on a replacement bus service, a death which is dismissed by all except Lamb as natural. Investigations reveal a mobile phone shoved down the side of the bus seat with the word “cicadas” in an unsent draft message, and an errant hat. From this, Lamb spirals into recollections of ancient Cold War sleeper agents, the phantom Soviet figure of Alexander Popov, and conspiracy.
Alongside this, Arkady Pashkin, a Russian oligarch, has been invited to talks by the slimy James “Spider” Webb in the Needle and he has seconded Harper and Guy to babysit him – a term that seems to mean both protect him and keep tabs on him – for those talks. It did not come as a huge surprise that these two plots were connected by the end of the novel, even if it felt just a little forced.
But these are character driven novels and Herron himself admits that
“Plotting is pretty much secondary to me. What really interests me is the characters and getting to grips with them, and them getting to grips with each other.”
And the characters are engaging (even Lamb) and likeable (except Lamb) despite their failings and weaknesses. One of the things I liked was the minutiae and inter-personal squabbles of the office spaces. Lamb who might be “scavenging his underlings’ food” when not dozing in his office, or Shirley pressing her ear to Ho’s door to find out what was going on, or Ho’s territorial claims:
And as if the afternoon wasn’t stressful enough, here came Catherine Standish, bearing gifts.
“Roddy,” she said, and placed a can of Red Bull on his desk.
Nodding suspiciously, Ho moved it a few inches to the left. Everything’s got its place.
A lot of this novel – more I’d say than Slow Horses – took place out of Slough House itself.
River Cartwright who took centre stage in Slow Horses drops out of the limelight in this one, and no one really fills that centre stage position. Louisa Guy, perhaps, has most focus but this novel felt much more like a genuine ensemble cast – and benefited from that, too. I have to say, that of the new recruits – both of whom seemed to be scarily competent to be slow horses – I did like Marcus.
Nor does Herron like to protect his slow horses from the real dangers that they face. Let’s be blunt. People die. Characters who you will have liked will not make it to the end of the novel. This does invest the plot with a certain tension and with the exception of Lamb I am not sure I would put money on anyone surviving the next five books. But at least we know that, if any of them end up dead, Lamb’s comments to River will probably hold true for all of them and, I suppose, that beneath the flatulence and racism and antagonism, this probably counts for loyalty or at least courtesy:
You’re a fuck up, but you’re still in the game. So if you turn up dead one day, and I’m not busy, I’ll probably ask around. Check for suspicious circumstances.
What I Liked
- The character-driven narrative, which does touch on cliche and can be overblown and over-the-top but is generally successful at creating likeable characters whom we care about despite – possibly because – of their failings. This was a strong ensemble cast.
- The pacing which pressed on somewhat relentlessly, switching points of view like a camera on a television series – and I believe a TV series is in fact in the offing with none other than Gary Oldman as Lamb! – as we follow Lamb, Shirley, River, Min and Louisa across London and the Cotswolds, and Catherine and Roderick Ho in Slough House.
- Catherine Standish, the quietly respected mother figure in Slough House, who does seem to have the strength to resist the obnoxiousness of Lamb.
- Lamb – I do feel I have to include him – there is much I dislike about him but he is also engaging and loyal when his team are threatened (by anyone other than himself) and yes he does, as The Guardian interview with Herron suggests, bear echoes of Falstaff, unlikeable but compelling in a horrible way.
- The plotting which did lead you by the arm into cul-de-sacs and dead ends before pulling the rug under your feet – and the denouement in the Cotswold village of Upshott was effective.
“He’s going to the Cotswolds, Standish. Not Helmand Province.”
“There’s something Charles Partner used to say about ops. The friendlier the territory, the scarier the natives.”
- The politics and machinations at Regents’ Park, where an “audit” was underway and Diana Taverner’s deflection of a critical decision at a critical time to Roger Barrowby who was conducting the audit was masterful… as was his leaving gift.
- Molly Doran, the Park’s archivist, “a squat, suspicious shape: a woman in a wheelchair; quite round, with a messy cap of grey hair, and a face powdered to clownish white” who was able to greet Lamb with real warmth. I hope we see more of her, as the world needs more role model archivists and librarians!
What Could Be Different
- Herron struggles a little bit with judging whether his readers are going to recall the characters from the first book and I found his little reminders of why they were in Slough House irksome.
- Lamb’s tempting Catherine to drink again was just cruel and unnecessary, a step too far for that particular characterisation.
- Just too much scatology and farting.