Missing Character   /   Spring 2024   /    Essays

Beating Slow Horses

The Swampy Pols of Mick Herron’s Spy Novels

Brad East

Cast of Slow Horses, 2022; TCD/Prod DB © Apple TV+/Alamy Stock Photos.

The conceit at the heart of Mick Herron’s Slow Horses novels is simple. There is a house in London for misfit spies. When MI5 is unable, for one reason or another, to fire failed employees, it opts to send them there. The exile is permanent, though the losers who suffer it do their best to pretend it isn’t. It’s a win-win for the service, in any case. No one gets sued. HR is pacified. And banishment proves either so unbearably dull and humiliating that the misfit spies voluntarily quit, or they remain there forever, whiling away the hours without hope of redemption. It is said of the souls in Dante’s purgatorio that the unhappiest are happier than the happiest on earth. Conversely, the happiest in Herron’s inferno are unhappier than the unhappiest outside its walls.

After all, there is no garden atop this mount and certainly no Virgil or Beatrice. Only a hulking demon, pitchfork in hand, keeping the drudges circling beneath him. The paradiso of Regent’s Park is lost forever. Only after some time does it dawn on the damned that their perpetual expulsion means they’re in hell.

Hell’s name is Slough House. Herron has written eight novels in the series since 2010, plus enough novellas to make a ninth book. Two further standalone novels belong to the same universe, and a twelfth entry, set thirty years in the past that fills in the backstory of certain characters and events, was published last fall. Starring Gary Oldman, a series based on the books premiered on AppleTV+ in April 2022; the plan is to adapt one book per season. Three seasons have been released so far, and the fourth has already been filmed. There seems no stopping this spy world’s massive success, on either side of the Atlantic.

The novels have for years been hailed as the next big thing in spy fiction. Herron is sometimes called the new John Le Carré. His prose is stylish and funny; his plots are tight and unpredictable; his characters well drawn, in one case indelibly; his tone is unremittingly mordant. The conceit of Slough House and its slow horses is seemingly inexhaustible in its power to drive new narratives as well as comment on the absurdities of spydom and especially of British politics. The novels began less than a decade after the attacks of September 11, 2001. But in response to the global Zeitgeist, they quickly emerged from the cold shadow of jihad, the Iraq War, and the July 7, 2005, London bombings into the light (or is it heat?) of right-wing demagoguery.

Spy fiction always keeps its finger on the pulse of politics, or tries to, anyway. Even when the geopolitics are pure background for popcorn entertainment, the background is there and has to be intelligible, at a minimum. The better authors in the genre have something to say. At the very least, their protagonists and stories end up saying something—whether as a kind of intervention, in bitter dissent from the status quo, or as celebration of that status quo, or as wish fulfillment. This last type is exemplified in Ian Fleming, whose Bond series is more fantasy than spycraft: world building on a par with the work of J.R.R. Tolkien (in The Lord of the Rings) and Frank Herbert (in Dune), except that Fleming’s world is supposed to resemble our own. Perhaps, then, the better comparison for Fleming’s MI6 is to Hogwarts, with M and Q as peers not so much of Maxwell Knight and Kim Philby as of Dumbledore and Hagrid: a world within our world, a world we cannot see but which men like Fleming wished were real in the crumbling empire of postwar Britain.

New Wave film director François Truffaut once said there’s no such thing as an antiwar film; the same goes for spy novels. There is no avoiding the fact that whether the author is Fleming, Le Carré, Len Deighton, Robert Ludlum, Robert Littell, Daniel Silva, or Herron, readers open his books expecting to be thrilled by double agents, layered plots, and masterminds—however serious or realistic the novelist’s aims. Herron, though, has been compared to Le Carré because, even as he delivers thrills (and, in a different way from that master, some good laughs), he too wants to shine a light on the foolishness and wickedness of Western pols. He planted the relevant seeds before Donald Trump and Brexit. Once they came along—the third book, Real Tigers, was published in 2016—the clouds cleared and Herron’s sprouts bloomed. If Le Carré’s oeuvre was the definitive literature of the Cold War, Herron’s aspires to be the same for reactionary populism. Judging from the last two novels, and depending on events in the next decade, it may well expand to include the pandemic and Putinist Russia.

A Cracked-Mirror Exercise

It is a dangerous game, holding a mirror to the world in real time. Don Winslow learned this the hard way. Winslow is an American novelist who specializes in muscular prose—clipped, one-sentence paragraphs that simulate staccato blows to the face—about dangerous men, beautiful women, and the crimes that embroil them. After concluding his two-part tale of the drug war, The Power of the Dog (2005) and The Cartel (2015), he couldn’t help himself from extending it into a trilogy. What prompted his return to this subject was the 2016 US election. Although his American protagonist, Art Keller, had killed off a thinly fictionalized version of El Chapo in the second book, Winslow quickly wrote a follow-up, The Border (2019), which features a Trump stand-in named John Dennison. The climax finds a long-winded Keller sermonizing to Congress about whether the attorney general should appoint a special counsel. Actually, by that point Dennison has already fired the first special counsel—call him Mueller-1—but Keller’s testimony leads to the appointment of Mueller-2.

It is all as silly as it sounds. And given what we know about Robert Mueller’s investigation, the fact that Winslow pinned the fate of his narrative on the untold revelations of a special counsel—assuming, I suppose, that the real world would make up for what he left unsaid—is particularly pitiable. It certifies the novel as nothing so much as “resistance” fan fiction—a sad fate indeed.

One worries whether Herron is painting himself into a similar corner. He is a better writer than Winslow, but his forays into politics are another cracked-mirror exercise. Sometimes he leaves real-life politicians unnamed, though it’s clear whom he has in mind: this or that male or female prime minister. Like Winslow, though, he can’t resist the temptation to create populist caricatures—in his case, of Nigel Farage and Boris Johnson. Each character’s fate illustrates the risks involved.

The Farage surrogate, called Dennis Gimball, plays to Herron’s strengths. Instead of hewing too closely to the ups and downs of a living figure, Gimball dies in grim but hilarious fashion, just before a moment of personal confession and public triumph. In the fifth book, London Rules (2018), Gimball is snatching a smoke outside before heading indoors to give a speech. One of the slow horses, just above him on some scaffolding, accidentally knocks a full can of paint onto his head. Gimball drops dead. The moment works because it works on the page: It is just what a slow horse would do, it is utterly unexpected, and it is damn funny. Best of all, it doesn’t prompt the reader to ask Google which British pol lately suffered “death by paint can.”

The Johnson takeoff, called Peter Judd, is a trickier proposition. Present from the first novel, Slow Horses (2010), he evolves into a low-key puppet master over the course of the series. He is an amusing scoundrel and therefore effective for Herron’s pulpier purposes. Nevertheless, at bottom he is a moustache twirler. His pure cynicism makes him a useful fictional foil, but as political satire, he falls flat. This fake Boris is little more than Blofeld for Brexit (sans evil Persian lap cat). It’s true that some people view Johnson and Farage as they have been parodied by Herron. But neither depiction produces shrewd commentary or savage insight. It’s just boilerplate punditry in novelized form. And in book after book, it gets tedious. Herron can’t stop beating a slow horse.

A Yeti in a Biscuit Bin

The saving grace of Slough House is its aforementioned demon. He goes by the name of Jackson Lamb. He’s the anti-Smiley, which is what makes it so delicious that Gary Oldman plays him in the series (having played Smiley in the 2011 film adaptation of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy). He’s rude, filthy, pitiless, and cruel. He thrives on others’ weakness. His verbal dexterity has only one purpose: to make you squirm. Being in his presence is a kind of torture. That’s not to mention the flatulence. He’s a whiskey-drenched slob who belches, farts, and smokes like a fertilizer factory. Imagine Ignatius J. Reilly as a spy, and you’re halfway there. (A front door swings open: “Inside, Jackson Lamb squatted in an armchair like a yeti in a biscuit tin: spilling over its edges, but not seeming to care.”) The self-absorption is the same as Reilly’s. What’s different is that Lamb knows the score: his own and the world’s. He’s a perfect spy, Herron wants us to see, since you’d never see him coming.

Lamb is a casualty of both the Cold War and its aftermath. He reigns over his kingdom with besotted and unrivaled sovereignty. Whatever loyalty or patriotism he once had—and it’s not clear he ever had any—he lost over the Wall, or perhaps in the wake of its fall. Regardless, he has a single code. A onetime joe himself, he protects his own, but safe within his castle, they’re fair game: He berates them into submission (also into therapy, sometimes into substance abuse, and always into misery). At one point a character bellows at Lamb, “Slough House isn’t a department. It’s a psychiatric ward.” To which Lamb replies, “As ever, you’re missing the big picture. It’s my psychiatric ward. And it’s off limits. Whatever you think your jurisdiction is, it runs out well before it reaches mine.”

Under threat by bad actors, Lamb’s joes are untouchable. Come for one of them, and you come for him. Threaten them, and you’ll suffer. Kill them, and—well, Lamb’s still kicking, isn’t he? He has not lost a fight to the death yet. In this he is something of a superhero. Not quite Kryptonian, but not quite believable either. A spook Jack Reacher, if Reacher were a fat alcoholic with holes in his socks.

At any rate, Lamb is an indelible creation because he is sui generis, and exquisitely rendered. His amoral code and malicious wit aptly fit the spy game because we simply never know when, or whether, it is an act. Late in Bad Actors (2022), a double agent initiates the following exchange with Lamb:

“You forgot for a moment, back there.”
“Forgot what?”
“Forgot to be yourself. You were too caught up in explaining what’s going on. Being clever instead of being gross.”
He sneered.

Lamb is meant, it seems to me, as a kind of x-ray or blacklight for British politics. He’s outside the system but also its creature. He’s thus uniquely suited to see it for what it is and then tell it to us like it is. We’re meant to appreciate, even revel in, his no-nonsense approach. He may be wicked, but he’s not hiding anything. And no one would call him a hypocrite.

The irony is striking. Lamb’s amoral perspective is equally apolitical. But a man with neither morals nor politics cannot be load bearing for social critique. If a bomb went off in England, Lamb might not bat an eye so long as his joes weren’t in the blast radius. Nor does Lamb ever encounter an actual opposing ideology. There are survivalists in the game, like him. There are climbers, who look out only for themselves and seek merely more money or more power, or both. And there are losers, who either don’t know how to play or don’t realize they’re playing in the first place. To paraphrase Derrida, for Lamb, there is nothing outside the spy game.

It’s not just that Lamb imposes his world on the world. It’s that Herron won’t let him, or anyone else for that matter, have an errant political opinion. Lamb may be a sexist racist who ridicules an alcoholic for her addiction and a dwarf for his size, but at least he doesn’t like the wrong people: in this case, alt-Boris and alt-Nigel and the Donald himself (no alt there). Nor does his in-country foe, Diana Taverner, first desk at Regent’s Park: She’d not be caught dead agreeing with a deplorable. Nor still would any of Herron’s slow horses. Not even the “bad guys” themselves! All the “alts” are just as cynical as Lamb. They’re spinning and lying their way to winning elections. There’s not a true believer among them. Populism appears not to be very popular. Is it, too, a conspiracy?

Like Pauline Kael, Herron can’t believe Brexit passed. He doesn’t know anyone who voted for it.

Empty Politics

Slough House is a world of bored liberals, exhausted liberals, and cynical liberals. The upshot is simultaneously an unrecognizable snapshot of the world that begat an international wave of populism—is there not a single religious person or conservative in Herron’s universe?—and an unwitting explanation for why, over the last decade, populism has exploded around the globe. In an age when elites are bored, exhausted, or cynical, yet sigh with satisfaction at history’s end, it is no wonder that history has returned with a vengeance. At every turn, Herron inadvertently captures the populist impulse, only never with the bite he is hoping for.

The clumsiest moment comes in the seventh book, Slough House (2021), which shoehorns the gilets jaunes into the plot. Readers learning about the yellow vest protests for the first time discover a sad-sack scramble of blue-collar dupes, racists, and anti-Semites jamming the streets of France. Herron writes, “Judd had gone ahead with what he’d hinted at, and was throwing his weight behind the Yellow Vest movement. There were those who’d regard this as tantamount to pitching in with the Nazi Party. But then, Nazis had a lot of support these days.” And wouldn’t you know, alt-Boris finds a way to co-opt the Yellow Vests’ naive leader with money and the promise of political success. Meanwhile, readers are still on pins and needles, waiting to see whether this wholly owned candidate will win the impending election for mayor of London. It is Mueller-2 all over again.

As English political philosopher John Gray has written, while “Herron’s portrayal of politicians is caricatural, his insight into the slow horses is intimate and affectionate.” What makes these novels a pleasure to read is not their commentary on the real world but the care with which they render a fictional one. What elevates the twisty plots—well crafted in their own right—is not just Herron’s prose but his choice to inhabit the minds and hearts of losers who simply are not lovable. Their respective sentences to exile are not unjust. They’re the genuine bottom of the barrel. They are dim-witted screwups who shouldn’t be spies. Although Herron sometimes lets them be heroes, in his better moments he ensures that they blunder their way into failures only slightly less catastrophic than those of the bad guys. Their fiascoes merely do not obstruct the villains’ predetermined path to defeat.

This is why Herron should simply forget about the real world. His world is good enough on its own. And try as he might, the slow horses’ world has not a word to say about ours. It neither reveals nor illuminates anything interesting about our time, except accidentally. Behind every crisis, the slow horses discover backroom machinations orchestrated, invariably, by a right-wing Brit. Perhaps even a shadowy group of them. If only we were rid of that lot, Herron seems to imagine, things would turn out okay. But such a politics is as empty as Jackson Lamb’s.

Besides, Lamb is hardly a voice Herron should want us to listen to. If it were up to him, he’d wish a plague on both houses of Parliament. A traitor to his class, he’d say all the awful things; he’d get us to laugh with him at the farce we’d too long taken for granted, even as he stuck up for his own. Come to think of it, it’s clear what Lamb would do. He’d drain the swamp.