Rob Price
Gutbrain Records
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2021 October 08 • Friday

Slow Horses is the first book in Mick Herron's Slough House espionage series.

The first novel in a series often is a bit exploratory and, well, maybe you'd say unsure in some ways, and Slow Horses did give me this impression at times but after reading the Slough House short story that's included as a bonus in this tenth anniverary edition, I'm wondering if this is just Herron's style.

Herron first came to my attention in the TLS, where the most recent Slough House novel and the series in general got a rave review. Herron himself has contributed some articles that impressed me quite a bit, both in their content and with the actual writing.

For fiction he has a very different voice, though, very wordy and enthusiastic, at times too much so for me. He also uses semicolons more than any other writer I know of, to the extent that I couldn't help noticing the frequency of their appearances.

But what's the deal? It's a great idea for a series. Slough House is where loser spies are sent just to be kept out of the way. The best result is that they'll become so bored and discouraged by the tedious and pointless busywork dumped on them in their crappy office building in a crappy neighborhood that they'll just quit and then British Intelligence won't have to worry about them anymore.

Everyone there has committed some kind of colossal error or transgression, whether it's some kind of vice, carelessness or bad luck. Their boss is a large, malodorous, deeply unpleasant man named Jackson Lamb, who appears to be more or less satisfied with reigning in hell instead of serving in heaven.

This first book gets off to a slow start, perhaps because Herron wants to introduce the reader to about a dozen different characters and does so simply by telling us about them. It's a considerable information dump and while there are some stirrings of the actual story during this time, I would have found it easier going if we could have learned about these people while they were in action in ways that directly connected to the story.

Once the plot itself really gets under way, however, the pace of the book hits a nice stride, the reader knows who everybody is, and there are so many twists and bits of authorial misdirection that you'll probably be able to see them coming even if you don't know exactly which direction the twist will go.

What is the plot? Well, there's very little to say that won't ruin one or another surprise. The main thing is the abduction of a young man by terrorists who plan to chop off his head and show the whole thing online. The slow horses get onto it and see in it a chance for redemption. At first, anyway.

The chief appeal of the series must lie in the character of Lamb and his anti-everythingness. He certainly is fun although I'm now tagging as cliche the "fat man who can move with incredible stealth and speed". This one goes back to at least the 1940s. And it's hardly a surprise that Lamb turns out to be incredibly capable at all aspects of tradecraft. Nonetheless, if the character has several familiar qualities it's partly because these qualities are so often enjoyable.

The best part of this edition is Herron's charming preface about how he started to write and develop the series. The short story is okay, giving a glimpse into Lamb's Cold War past.

It's the first in a series and it definitely has potential, even though the style is a little breathlessly wordy, teetering on the brink of being overwritten, and oddly punctuated for my taste. I'll try the second one at some point.

The first line is "This is how River Cartwright slipped off the fast track and joined the slow horses".