Mick Herron wrote a two-book Slough House series featuring River Cartwright which began with Slow Horses and ended with Dead Lions. ‘Slow Horses’ is a nickname given to disgraced spies who live out the rest of what might generously be termed their careers in the MI5 Slough House, as opposed to working in pin-stripes at Regent’s Park. Too knowledgeable to be cut loose and too damaged to handle edgy assignments, these talented but dismissed spies are called upon in Dead Lions to chase a ghost—a Russian spy long hidden from view.
I’ve been reading backward through Herron’s work, beginning with his soon-to-be released Nobody Walks published by Soho Crime, which is a cornucopia of rich characterizations, cynical observations about the business of spying, and imaginative spycraft. I have not gotten to Slow Horses but I can tell you that these works are all of a piece. River Cartwright was ostensibly the main man in the first two books, though his involvement was not as pronounced in Dead Lions as Tom Bettany’s is in Nobody Walks.
Mick Herron has an eye for the ways individuals can look absurd in large bureaucratic organizations: who gets ahead, who stays ahead, and who stays alive are all subject to his scrutiny and imaginative doodlings. The failings of ordinary folk provide a rich vein of material.
Dead Lions is written like the screenplay for a TV series in that much of the novel is conversation. Unless one is a Londoner, this presents a little bit of a challenge in being able to follow the action especially when being told by a cynical and wily old sidelined spy. One never knows what is true and what is not even if one understands his language. When one grows up in an organization, there is a specific vocabulary for insiders. If one is not part of the group, understanding can be as difficult as crashing a company’s Christmas cocktail party. But like that theoretical Christmas party, if one holds on long enough for understanding to dawn, the ride is quite fun enough.
Herron is good at writing spy thrillers, very good, indeed. If this is your special genre, his books are a must-read. If British spy thrillers are only an occasional treat for you, he is still one of the best, and getting better all the time. Start with Nobody Walks.
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