After the last disastrous attempt to find a new mystery, I was still on the hunt late this spring and was intrigued when I found Mick Herron’s Slow Horses, the first in his new-ish Slough House series. It traces the lives and exploits of the “Slow Horses”, MI-5’s rejects who for some reason can’t be fired but can be exiled to Slough House, where they push paper and scan computer screens all day. The motley crew, led by the vile and disgusting yet surprisingly human Jackson Lamb, stumbles upon a supposed terrorist plot after an unexpected victim is kidnapped. River Cartwright, the grandson of intelligence royalty and relegated to intelligence obscurity for accidentally crashing King’s Cross Station, leads the mission as the team races against time and the higher ups at Regent’s Park determined to put Slough House back in it place to save the victim, unmask the true masterminds, and prevent an international incident.
This was an interesting book. I think the genre of “spy thriller” can be hard to pull off in novel form, unless you are John Le Carre, even more so when your spies are basically pencil pushers and desk jockeys. On top of that, this spy thriller is trying to say something and something important. It uses the frame-work of its terrorism and kidnapping plot to explore the radicalization of individuals and communities via the internet. The novel argues that it’s not the radical voices that are necessarily dangerous but those listeners and readers who take the radical rhetoric to its logical–or, it could be argued, illogical– dangerous, and scary end. Essentially the internet allows people to find community in a much broader, even global way than previously, particularly those who have been or feel victimized. In some ways, this is positive–it allows actual victims and allies to find each other, provide support, and effect change, such as was seen with this year’s Women’s March. In other cases, the internet also allows people to gather and turn something that’s not really a problem into a problem and themselves into victims, with fear, belief, and entitlement overtaking fact and critical analysis. An example is the radicalization of young, straight, white men, seen recently in Gamergate or, in the case of this novel and world politics, as the drivers of the populist and anti-immigration movements in Europe and the US. Whether or not you agree with the premise of Herron’s argument, research and, indeed, experience is increasingly showing us the effect of the dark side of the internet has on socio-cultural beliefs and human interaction. (If you are interested in some of the psychology behind what makes humans lie and be susceptible to lying, fake news, and our current political and cultural climates, check out National Geographic’s excellent article, “Why We Lie” from their June 2017 issue.)
This is really important stuff to be talking about, and I applaud Herron for using a piece of popular writing to alert his readers to major societal concerns. For genre-fiction as social polemic to work, however, the actual novel has to be really strong, and unfortunately, in this case, it’s not quite. The novel begins in medias res and reveals character’s backstories slowly, as if Herron wants to spin out the suspense as longs as possible by just dropping crumbs here and there. Oddly, though, this makes it extremely exposition heavy yet not a lot of the exposition is particularly interesting or helpful.
Additionally, the exposition doesn’t allow for much real character development, so it was hard to care for these spunky misfits who are the only thing that stand between us unsuspecting civilians and the next world war. For example (and here be spoilers), two characters flip sides, and I hardly remembered who they were by the time I finished the novel, let alone now as I’m writing this review. Another one was killed, and my response was not one of emotional connection but more of, “Oh, I guess that character is dead now. I wonder why they were in the book at all.” Even the main character was not well developed to the point that I did not realize who Herron was talking about when describing him at the end of the novel. The most memorable character is the leader of Slough House, Jackson Lamb, but only because he is absolutely disgusting as a human being.
The pacing was a bit of a challenge as well. The first 150 pages were super slow, but not bad enough to stop. Rather it was just good enough to keep going to see if the pace would improve. After that it picked up to near breakneck speed, and I didn’t want to put it down just because there was no point in stopping by then. I must say, the last several chapters, alternating perspective between the Slough House team and the kidnapped victim, were incredibly thrilling and sickeningly horrifying and would make for an excellent film sequence. And (here be more spoilers) the ending was really great–for the victim, at least.
This was just a really interesting reading experience. I found the book to be extremely prescient, basically predicting (or at least recognizing early?) Brexit and extreme right-wing white/nationalistic anger. But as a platform for a message, it undermined what it was trying to do by not meeting the high standards it set for itself in terms of novel structure. But I liked how pulpy it was and its devil may care vibe. It was fun at times. I’m honestly not sure if I liked it, but I kind of want to read the next one. So I guess I liked it enough, and you may, too.
Dead Lions by Mick Herron
So I read the second one, Dead Lions. And I continue to not really know how I feel about this series.
In Dead Lions, we’re thrown back to the Cold War when one of Britain’s low level Cold War agents dies, and Jackson Lamb, head of Slough House, suspects foul play. An impending visit from a Russian oligarch and whispers of a long-debunked fake Russian spy reappeared put Lamb on high alert and send the Slow Horses into action…sort of.
So Dead Horses fixes some of my character concerns from the first installment. Herron doesn’t try to make a major social point with this one. He’s just focused on spinning a good tale. We also spend more time with characters other than River Cartwright and Jackson Lamb, getting to better know Louisa Guy & Min Harper, Roderick Ho, and my favorite, Catherine Standish. Yes, that’s right. The character development is enough this time that I now have a favorite, and I immensely appreciate that the most bad-ass Slow Horse is an unassuming yet imminently capable middle-aged woman. She is absolutely the smartest person in the room, and you would never know it until she has you trapped. Awesome.
However, a few problems still remain. The pacing demonstrates different challenges this time: it moves more quickly than Slow Horses but takes much longer to charge into gear, so long, in fact, that the ending feels a bit sudden and perfunctory. And even with the improved development, I still cared very little for most of the characters. The stakes felt lower in this one than the first, and at the end, I didn’t really feel the need to continue the series.
The problem is that it’s not a terrible series, though. Not great but not terrible. And Herron does know how to write a thrilling near-end action sequence. So even though I’m not really feeling it, there is a part of me that’s like, “Hey…you’re two books into the series…it’s fluff, so why not just continue when you’re looking for something light?” We’ll see how powerful that voice turns out to be, but for the time being, the effort it will take to get the next book is outweighing the desire to keep reading.