“Slow Horses” is the first book in Slough House series by Mick Herron, which has been in the news and mentioned by various authors as well as being recently released as a TV series.
The central conceit is that the British security services have their own special office for Constructive Dismissal. A special office where incompetent and or embarrassing or disgraced secret police agents are given the full treatment of boring office life, with insulting bullshit office jobs so menial and meaningless that they will become so insulted or disheartened that they resign, saving the service the bother of firing them through due process or having to pay them a pension or go through an employment tribunal for unfair dismissal. This is a brilliant idea, very nicely done. The first thing that struck me about the first half of the novel was a kind of timelessness and not all in a totally good way. Sixties spies like Harry Palmer and Quiller could probably be sent into exile at Slough House and they would be at home,. Because despite the fact that mobile phones and computers are mentioned and used, there was an almost Sixties-to-Eighties vibe to the whole story atmosphere. Perhaps Herron started writing the book a very long time ago and never quite eradicated the outdated setting. Also not helping in the first book is the young agent called River, whose son-of-hippy backstory was already anachronistic when the book came out. Wittily Gen-X and all that, but a darling that should have been murdered. But overall, the book entertains. The characters were strong, for the most part. A couple were boring and any time they took centre stage I couldn’t wait for the book to get on. Also, there was a young Anglo-Pakistani guy who appears fairly late in the book as a kidnap victim and he has the payoff at the end of the book. It was a slightly odd choice to introduce somebody who became a pivotal character so late in a book. Also, he is an unengaging personality to begin with and is hard to stick with until he has his Character Growth in the final stages. Overall, Jackson Lamb, the main snotty spy is a very entertaining character but the reality of jumped tracks a tiny bit because while everyone else seems to be a Security Service (MI5) operative, Lamb is definitely SIS and despite having read many British spy novels, I don’t remember anybody who got seconded from one to the other. Perhaps in Mick Herron’s Always The Eighties with Gen-X humour parallel universe. Small enough quibble. And the end was brought home very nicely. The wrap-up seemed to be full of holes and it was hard to grasp how it all worked out and whether it was believable as presented. But I admired the way that he had set things up from about halfway through the book so marks for execution. In some ways, Herron seems to be a writer’s writer.