The spies who work out of Slough House are “a post-useful crew of misfits [who] can be stored and left to gather dust.” Every one of them. MI5 has dumped them all there after they screwed up royally. Now they labor at menial tasks under the direction of a misanthropic ex-operative named Jackson Lamb. They’re called “Slow Horses,” which is the title of the first novel in Mick Herron‘s engaging and sometimes hilarious four-book series. Slow Horses is British satire of the first order. The victim is MI5.
Not yet thirty, River Cartwright is one of the youngest of the Slow Horses and one of the latest arrivals. He has been at Slough House for just four months. Even before completing his training, River managed to trigger a catastrophic terrorist attack in the London Underground. This resulted in “killing or maiming an estimated 120 people and causing 30m [pounds’] worth of actual damage, along with a projected 2.5 billion [pounds] in lost tourist revenue . . .” The fact that his training partner set him up hasn’t prevented River from being relegated to this contemporary version of purgatory. In fact, the only reason River hasn’t been fired outright is that his grandfather (the O.B., or Old Bastard) had retired from a senior position in MI5 and still has considerable influence in the agency.
Slow Horses (Slough House #1) by Mick Herron @@@@ (4 out of 5)
It seems that nobody at Slough House likes anyone else. In fact, the hostility is palpable. Every one of the Slow Horses harbors a fantasy of getting back to work at Regent’s Park, MI5 headquarters—and seems to think that nobody else ever will. Actually, nobody ever has. They’re all expected to get bored and leave the service.
The Byzantine plot in Slow Horses begins to unfold when River is assigned to retrieve and comb through the garbage of a notorious, right-wing journalist. Every night. Meanwhile, River’s office-mate, Sid Baker (a woman) has been detailed to steal the journalist’s electronic files. Somehow, these two and all their colleagues at Slough House become embroiled in an extremely messy set of circumstances involving a young Pakistani student, three right-wing extremists, a cabinet minister, their superiors in MI5, and the aforementioned journalist. It’s a sorry tale full of suspense, and often a funny one.
The large cast of characters in Slow Horses illustrates the broad range of their incompetence. There’s “Lady Di,” Diane Taverner, who is the agency’s insufferably manipulative deputy director. Jackson Lamb runs Slough House from behind an upper-floor office door that never seems to open. Catherine Standish was the executive assistant to MI5’s director general; she may have been involved somehow in his mysterious death. Min Harper left a computer disk containing classified information on a seat in the Underground and was moved to Slough House when the press published the embarrassing contents. Practically nobody knows what crimes or misdemeanors anyone else of these misfits may have committed. Except for Roderick Ho, a consummate computer hacker, who knows practically everyone else’s secret.
Appreciating British satire may require a perverse view of life and the world. Whatever it is, I’ve got it.
For additional reading
I’ve reviewed all the Slough House novels to date. Links to my reviews can be found here: Following Mick Herron’s clever British spies at Slough House.
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