Slough House is the Intelligence Service outpost for failed spies called the ‘slow horses’. One of them, Catherine Standish, knows that chance encounters never happen to spooks.
She’s worked in the Intelligence Service long enough to understand treachery, double-dealing and stabbing in the back. What she doesn’t know is why anyone would target her: a recovering drunk pushing paper with the other lost causes in Jackson Lamb’s kingdom of exiles at Slough House.
Whoever it is holding her hostage, it can’t be personal. It must be about Slough House. Most likely, it is about Jackson Lamb. And say what you like about Lamb, he’ll never leave a joe in the lurch.
He might even be someone you could trust with your life.
Like most forms of corruption, it began with men in suits.
With the release of Bad Actors last month, about which so may people I know were so excited, and the new Apple TV series, which I cannot access, I decided that it was time to return to the series to try to catch up. I am on book three, and the new one is book eight, so still some way to go!
I’ve not been wholly struck by the series: the ongoing fart jokes have really tended to turn me off, and the plotting has been over-packed. But this one seemed better, with a reduced focus on Jackson Lamb, and a concomitant reduction in farts, and a more taut plot.
With regard to that plot, Catherine Standish is kidnapped and in return for her safe return, the kidnappers demand that River Cartwright infiltrate MI5 and retrieve some secret file. There are a number of twists – obviously: the kidnappers are in face a ‘fake tiger’ team, employed to stress test a system; but then the operatives on the fake tiger team go rogue, murder their boss and insist on being given access to a different file in a different location. And, perhaps, that file wasn’t even their ultimate aim. And behind that is the political machinations between MI5’s First and Second Desks, Dame Ingrid Tearney and Diana Taverner and their own putative boss, Peter Judd, the Home Secretary who with his floppy hair, privileged background and questionable ethics bears more than a passing echo of our own Prime Minister:
Through persistence, connections and family wealth, he’d established a brand—“a loose cannon with a floppy fringe and a bicycle”
The Slough House team are, as well all know by now, the rejects of the MI5 community, but they are also in a particularly downward spiral after Min’s death in Dead Lions: Louisa Guy is hiding her grief behind alcohol and one-night stands whilst Marcus Longridge and Shirley Dander are both giving into their respective addictions, gambling and cocaine respectively. This is one of Herron’s strengths: his characters, whilst deeply flawed, are also deeply human – and none of them feel safe, except for perhaps Lamb and Cartwright: Min had been one of the most likeable and most gentle of the Slow Horses, and his relationship with Louisa was very sweet, and his death was a genuine shock in Dead Lions.
Catherine Standish is, herself, a highly likeable character and in many ways the mother within the dysfunctional Slough House. Her kidnapping, rather than sidelining her, actually gives us a lot of tie with her, as well as seeing how much effort and risk Cartwright and the team, and even Jackson Lamb, was willing to make to keep her safe. One of the best conflicts in the novel was internal when one of her (unusually polite and respectful) kidnappers brought her a meal including a miniature bottle of wine and, as a recovering alcoholic in a high-stress situation, the conflict is between drinking it and remaining sober…
The conclusion is, perhaps, a little overwrought and overly aggressive but this was, for me, the most enjoyable of the series so far.
What I Liked
- The range of complex and damaged characters, including the more minor characters.
- Catherine Standish’s conflict with her alcoholism.
- The real sense that anyone could die, leading to a genuine tension.
- The real sense of murkiness and darkness in the political machinations around MI5.
What Could Have Been Different
- I will keep moaning about it: less farting!