Cover image of "Slough House," a novel about British secret intelligence

Estimated reading time: 7 minutes

Lady Di has painted herself into a corner. Oh, not that Lady Di. This one is Diana Taverner, the newly anointed Director General of Her Majesty’s Secret Service. (Well, she and everyone else refers to the job as First Chair. But we all know what’s going on.) And—acting purely out of patriotic motives, mind you—she has turned to the private sector to fund an off-book mission that her parsimonious handlers in government have proven unwilling to support. These days, British secret intelligence is on the dole. And now the private sector wants its pound of flesh.

Even worse, in that off-book mission, Lady Di dispatched a contract killer to Russia to eliminate one of the GRU‘s most feared assassins. The murderer in question—the Russian, not the mercenary—had herself recently been in England, where she ended the life of one of Lady Di’s agents. So the mission was payback. And it was successful. Unfortunately, now the GRU insists on exacting vengeance for that impertinence. The Russians have sent a team of assassins, which is now in the process of escalating the conflict by murdering former Slough House residents. And threatening the ones who work there now.

Ah, the unintended consequences we unleash with such good intentions! And how many times in the annals of British secret intelligence has that happened?

Slough House (Slough House #10) by Mick Herron (2021) 247 pages ★★★★★

If these men—George Lazenby, Pierce Brosnan, Sean Connery, Roger Moore, and Timothy Dalton—represent your image of a British secret agent, welcome to the world of Slough House. You won’t find James Bond here. Image: Consequence Film

If you’re unfamiliar with Slough House . . .

Here’s what you need to know if you haven’t yet read any of the nine earlier Slough House stories. The eponymous “house” is a crumbling old office building located across London from Lady Di’s headquarters at Regents Park. There, she exiles her agency’s misfits and screw-ups, subjecting them to the not-so-tender mercies of Jackson Lamb. Lamb is, not to put too fine a point to it, a fat, boorish, misanthropic slob. But he is a veteran secret agent with a fearsome reputation. He’s brilliant, and everyone in his orbit is terrified of him. Including his boss, Lady Di. And, not so incidentally, he is one of the most compelling figures in espionage fiction.

The changing cast of characters at Slough House

Stuff happens in the Slough House stories. New agents come. Some old ones actually die. But Slough House abides, and Jackson Lamb appears ageless and immovable. And a handful of the original characters are still around in this tenth book in the series. If you’re a fan, you’ll recognize the names: Young River Cartwright, who isn’t a screw-up at all. Homicidal coke-head Shirley Dander. Hapless Louisa Guy. Recovering alcoholic Catherine Standish, condemned to work as Jackson Lamb’s secretary. And a hilarious later entry, hacker and self-styled but thoroughly unsuccessful ladies man Roddy Ho. Oh, and another member of the original cast returns, apparently from the dead. Mick Herron writes in the omniscient third person, allowing each of them (and several others) to have their say. And the interaction among them is priceless. Expect to encounter the cleverest dialogue this side of Piccadilly Circus. It seems that British secret intelligence can be a lot of fun. When the agents aren’t getting killed.

So, what’s going on here?

In Slough House, as in every one of the stories that precede it, there are plots and subplots galore. You’re unlikely to figure out what’s going on until the end is in sight. While those Russian assassins pick off the veterans of Slough House, one by one, Lady Di struggles to extricate herself from the death-grip of her wealthy benefactors. Especially a young media tycoon who seems to think he’s in charge, and a now-retired contender for the PM’s job who really seems to be. (The former “approved of a system which had allowed him to get rich, but he also believed in pulling the ladder up afterwards. If everyone succeeded, nobody did.”) Meanwhile, that original cast member we’ve long thought was dead has somehow resurfaced. She was, it seems, the love of River Cartwright’s life, and that adds a new dimension to the tale. Oh, and a couple of gay dwarfs enter the scene as well, one of them dead, the other in mourning. It’s all a glorious gallimaufry. Or, if you prefer, a clusterf***. But it all works out in the end. More or less.

Is Slough House MI5, or MI6?

The most familiar work of British secret intelligence is carried out by two agencies. The remit of the Secret Intelligence Service, known as MI6, is the covert overseas collection and analysis of human intelligence. That of its counterpart, the Security Service, or MI5, is to address terrorism and espionage domestically. The two organizations are sometimes bitter rivals.

Image of SIS House, headquarters of the overseas arm of British secret intelligence
Headquarters of Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service, MI6, fronting the River Thames. Fittingly enough, it’s known as SIS House. Herron sometimes implies that Slough House is an offshoot of its rival, MI5. But other times he seems to conflate the two agencies. Image: Laurie Nevay via Wikipedia

In the Slough House series, the early books seem to indicate that the characters are agents of the government’s domestic intelligence arm, MI5. They work exclusively inside Britain. However, the picture is clouded by the central figure of Jackson Lamb, whose legendary work overseas is often mentioned. And in the later books, Herron refers to Diana Taverner as head of the Secret Service, a familiar name for MI6. It can be confusing, if you’re aware of the distinction. But so what? It’s all in good fun.

Image of Thames House, headquarters of the domestic arm of British secret intelligence
MI5 is not headquartered at Regents Park, as the Slough House novels insist, but here, at Thames House, which doesn’t appear to be crumbling in the least. Image: Wikipedia

About the author

Image of Mick Herron, author of this book about British secret intelligence
Mick Herron. Image: Antonio Olmos/The Observer via The Guardian

British mystery writer Mick Herron (born 1963) is the author of the growing Slough House series that now includes ten books, including three novellas. He has also written a four-book series of novels about Oxford private investigator Zoë Boehm as well as three standalone novels. Herron lives in Oxford.

Britain’s Sunday Express has written, “Herron’s comic brilliance should not overshadow the fact that his books are frequently thrilling, often thought-provoking, and sometimes moving and even inspiring.” I couldn’t agree more.

This is one of 26 mysteries to keep you reading at night.

For reviews of the other books in this series, see Following Mick Herron’s clever British spies at Slough House. And for a series of novels about MI5 spies who are not misfits and screw-ups like the reluctant residents of Slough House, see Dame Stella Rimington’s Liz Carlyle series of top-notch espionage novels.

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