The Smell of Failure: Mick Herron, Slow Horses


She meant well, he supposed, but her predecessor here had quit the Service, ground into submission by routine tasks. As had his own; a man called Black, who had lasted only six months, and left before River arrived. That was the true purpose of Slough House. It was a way of losing people without having to get rid of them, sidestepping legal hassle and tribunal threats. And it occurred to him that maybe that was the point of Sid’s presence: that her youth and freshness were meant as a counterpoint to the slow horses’ failure, rendering it more pungent. He could smell it now. Looking at this hooded boy on his screen, River could smell failure on his own skin.

When I mentioned on Twitter how much I had enjoyed Mick Herron’s TLS essay on rereading John Le Carré, several people encouraged me to try Herron’s own fiction–both his espionage novels, the Slough House series, and his Oxford crime novels. I found some of the more recent Slough House ones at Bookmark a while ago but held off because I was advised to start at the beginning if I could, so I was excited to find the first one, Slow Horses, in stock the next time I went looking. I settled in to read it yesterday, a treat for a day off classes, and I finished it by the light of our Coleman lantern after the power went out around 9:30 p.m. Yes, it was that good: I didn’t want to just leave the last 25 pages or so until today! Plus I was a bit concerned that if I put it down, I would drop the threads of the plot before I picked it back up again–though compared to Le Carré’s plots, Slow Horses is relatively straightforward.

Because the twists and turns of the plot are central to the pleasure of reading Slow Horses, I won’t go into much detail. I’ll just say that the story unfolds in the shadow of the 7/7 bombings and deals in quite a pointed way with their consequences, both for the state apparatus charged with protecting the British public and with elements of that public who find in the terrorist threat justification for their own retrograde form of nationalism, with its own equally destructive extremism. Instead of the Circus–which is, at least in theory, a center of excellence for discovering and outwitting Britain’s enemies–Herron gives us Slough House, a dumping ground for failed agents (the punningly named “slow horses” of the title), where deliberate discouragement is the strategy for getting them to quit, an administratively preferable option to simply firing them. And instead of Smiley–gloomy, taciturn, brilliant, and principled–he gives us Jackson Lamb–gloomy, taciturn, brilliant, and flatulent.slow-horses

As that detail suggests, Herron does not take his subject quite as seriously as Le Carré: at least in the ones of his I’ve read so far, at most there’s the occasional bit of wry humor, or wincing irony, while parts of Slow Horses are actually laugh-out-loud funny, and others, while still suspenseful, are structured a bit like a comedy of errors, with near misses and clever ploys that stay just on the shadowy side of farce. It’s hard after a while not to root for Slough House’s collection of misfits and fuck-ups, to hope that Lamb himself underestimates them when, for instance, he gives the hostage they undertake to rescue no better than 60-40 odds of surviving the attempt. As our motley assortment of underdogs discovers what it feels like to have a real purpose again, you can feel them also recovering their self-respect, and it’s oddly touching.

Slow Horses doesn’t have quite the moral gravitas I found so compelling in the Smiley novels, but Herron shares Le Carré’s focus on the conflict between integrity and self-interest, and the challenge of negotiating both in the service of one’s country. He is grimmer than Le Carré — more graphically violent — but the violence is played with a touch of mordant humor that, while occasionally unsettling, keeps things exciting rather than horrifying. Perhaps Herron is a bit too fond of the bait-and-switch as a technique to keep the suspense simmering … but it works! That’s why I stayed huddled by my lantern in our dark and rapidly chilling living room until I knew how everything turned out. I call that an endorsement! I’ll definitely read more Mick Herron, both in this series and (if I can find them) his Oxford mysteries.

11 thoughts on “The Smell of Failure: Mick Herron, Slow Horses

  1. Charlotte April 3, 2021 / 5:04 pm

    Peter Judd (‘PJ’) is very obviously Boris Johnson a decade or two back! The description and behaviour is a dead giveaway.


    • banff1972 June 8, 2021 / 9:48 pm

      God yes. But I don’t think he shows up until book 3.


      • Rohan Maitzen June 9, 2021 / 8:18 am

        Aha, you are reading these! And quickly, apparently, if you’ve already got to book 3. Are you enjoying them? I guess we’ll find out when you post about them at your own place.


        • theadventuresofalandiolanthe June 11, 2021 / 5:40 pm

          I too am enjoying them enormously – finished 6th last night and now wish I’d bought the 7th even though it is pricey. I have found something fairly random to read in the meantime instead ‘The Abortionists Daughter’. No idea where I got that from.


  2. Charlotte June 9, 2021 / 5:07 am

    I’ve just had a flick through Slow Horses (the first of the Slough House series) and he appears in there with his trusty henchman, Sebastian. Just flicking through it made me realise I could happily read the whole series again from the start, so bang goes my plan of selling the set on eBay!

    Liked by 1 person

    • banff1972 June 9, 2021 / 9:34 am

      Goodness, I’d forgotten that, even though I just read it two weeks ago! Apologies! Obviously I could stand to re-read them too. Have you read the novellas as well?


      • theadventuresofalandiolanthe June 9, 2021 / 12:33 pm

        No, I haven’t. I’m near the end of the 6th of the box set and need to source the 7th which is still quite expensive as there aren’t many second hand copies yet.

        Liked by 1 person

        • banff1972 June 10, 2021 / 12:34 pm

          Library maybe?

          I’m supposed to be reading other things, but I keep sneaking in more bits of Herron (on to # 4 now) — addictive!


          • theadventuresofalandiolanthe June 11, 2021 / 5:44 pm

            I have quite a pile of mostly non-fiction (which I used to prefer to fiction till recent years) and a few random works of fiction such as William Boyd, Iris Murdoch which I must have picked up at jumble sales…I do find thriller type books much more gripping and fabulous escapism in these tedious times!

            Liked by 1 person

  3. theadventuresofalandiolanthe June 9, 2021 / 12:35 pm

    Oh how peculiar, I signed in with wordpress this time as I couldn’t be bothered filling in all my details again so it has me down as ‘the adventures of Al and Iolanthe’ which is a blog I started about my children. Ditched it after one entry! Clearly better at reading than writing.


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