Clever British spies: Slow Horses by Mick Herron

The eleven books in Mick Herron‘s Slough House series are the best known of the eighteen novels he has written to date. The series follows the screw-ups and misfits of Britain’s MI5 who have been warehoused at a location distant from the agency’s London headquarters and left in the charge of an irascible old former agent who wishes he were anywhere else. MI5, of course, is the country’s domestic intelligence agency, somewhat comparable to America’s FBI but without law enforcement powers. Herron brings them to life with humor (or is that humour?) and an accomplished novelist’s command of the thriller genre.

Dead Lions, the second Slough House entry, won the prestigious Crime Writers’ Association Gold Dagger Award for the best crime novel by an author of any nationality, originally written in English, first published in the UK during the preceding year.

This post was updated on November 29 2022.

These clever British spies are funny but deadly serious

Slow Horses (2010)— British satire about misfit spies in MI5

The spies who work out of Slough House are “a post-useful crew of misfits [who] can be stored and left to gather dust” 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.” However, as we soon learn, they are, indeed, clever British spies. Read the review.

Dead Lions (2013)—Russian sleeper agents and the misfits of MI5

The misfits at Slough House are drawn into the investigation of a former asset’s death and a seemingly unrelated assignment to provide protection for a visiting Russian oligarch. Since this is fiction, we will not be surprised to learn that the two assignments will turn out to be related. Once again, the denizens of Slough House prove themselves to be clever British spies. Read the review.

The List (2015)—Bumbling spies again in Mick Herron’s Slough House series

MI5 officer John Bachelor has already been put out to pasture. For some time now, it’s been his job to track several former foreign assets who have retired to England. Then one of them suddenly dies—and John has a problem. As his nasty boss lays down John’s new assignment, he starts “to get an inkling of how mice felt, and other little jungle residents. The kind preyed on by snakes.” Read the review.

Real Tigers (2016)—Slough House spooks are on the loose again

They’re all spooks. But Marcus is a gambling addict. Shirley’s a cokehead (“It was a weekend thing with her, strictly Thursday to Tuesday.”) Catherine is a recovering alcoholic, Louisa a sex addict, Roddy a hacker with a toxic personality. And River screwed up a large-scale training mission so publicly that he caused all traffic to come to a halt at one of London’s busiest tube stations during rush hour. Read the review.

Spook Street (2017)—The clever British spies at Slough House uncover a decades-old conspiracy

In a television series, the denizens of Mick Herron’s Slough House series would be known as an “ensemble cast.” From one episode (or book) to the next, the same characters keep appearing,, playing their expected roles. Typically, on TV, none of these characters leaves the scene, unless an actor decides to depart for better terms elsewhere or an idiosyncratic author elects to retire a character for reasons of her own. But Slough House is not like that. Characters die. The ensemble cast mutates from book to book. And that’s a good thing, since it keeps readers guessing.

But these are not good days for Slough House or MI5. A suicide bomber has just murdered hundreds of young people he had attracted to a London plaza by organizing a flash mob. Then things start to get really funky. Read the review.

London Rules (2018)—MI5’s misfit spies outdo themselves in this very funny novel

Slough House abides, with Jackson Lamb reigning from his cluttered lair on the top floor. The veteran spy enforces London Rules, at least so far as they apply to him: “force others to take you on your own terms. And if they didn’t like it, stay in their face until they did.” The failed MI5 officers in his charge include characters familiar to readers of the series: Roddy Ho, a computer hacker whose behavior lends new meaning to the word clueless; a coke addict and bundle of repressed violence named Shirley Dander; the mysterious J. K. Coe, who seems to know far too much; Louisa Guy, who is “relatively sane”; Catherine Standish, Jackson’s assistant, a recovering alcoholic; and River Cartwright, who should never have been assigned to Slough House. With this cast of characters, clever British spies one and all, anything can happen, and it usually does. Read the review.

The Marylebone Drop (2018)Mick Herron scores with another entry in the Slough House series

The novel The Marylebone Drop isn’t set at Slough House like the other stories in the series. Jackson Lamb is barely mentioned. But other characters familiar to readers of the earlier entries play roles in the tale. And this time we’re introduced to MI5 officers who are destined for Slough House but just haven’t yet been sent there. The story in this charming little novella revolves around one of several long-retired foreign assets living in England. Solomon (Solly) Dortmund was an agent for British intelligence in East Germany in the long-ago days of the Cold War. Now he lives a modest existence on a pension from MI5. The tale starts, and begins to unravel, when Solly sees a “drop” in a London tea-shop. Read the review.

Joe Country (2019)Mick Herron’s latest spy thriller will keep you guessing

There are two stories in play here. There’s the kid, Lucas Harper, and how he stupidly managed to bring down upon himself the wrath of a gang of homicidal mercenaries in the wilds of Wales. And there’s Lech Wicinski, who has just been exiled to Slough House because child porn turned up on his laptop at Regents Park. Of course, how it got there is . . . well, complicated . . . and Lech himself had nothing to do with that. Somehow, these two tales wend their way toward a twisted and blood-soaked conclusion within days of each other. It’s all gloriously complex and likely to keep you guessing for hundreds of pages. Read the review.

The Catch (2020)About that billionaire who committed suicide in prison

John Bachelor in The Catch is stuck in a dead-end job that puts him just barely this side of Slough House. He’s a “milkman,” charged with checking in every month on a list of retired former MI5 agents scattered about England. Except that “John hadn’t laid eyes on Benny Manors in well over two years.” And that poses a problem—a very big problem—when two threatening spooks from the agency show up demanding that he find the long-missing agent. Or else. And he knows exactly what else they have in mind. (No, it’s not good.) Read the review.

Cover image of "Slough House," the novel

Slough House (2021)—British secret intelligence muddles through a crisis of its own making

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. Read the review.

Bad ActorsMischief and misadventure in abundance at Slough House

When books are adapted for film or television, something is invariably lost. All too often, that means the screenwriter has ignored or butchered every shred of value in the writing. We rejoice when the characters a novelist has created emerge full-bodied on the screen. And there is, indeed, much to praise in the way Apple TV+ has conveyed Mick Herron’s Slough House crew to the series now streaming online. Not just the stars, the accomplished actors Gary Oldman and Kristin Scott Thomas, shine on-screen. The supporting cast does an equally stellar job. And that’s not just me talking. The critics seem to agree. The series works. Still, there is, sadly, something missing in the TV adaptation: Herron’s humor. Every one of the novels abounds with it. And it explodes on the pages of his eighth Slow Horse novel, Bad Actors, which is laugh-out-loud funny. Read the review.

About the author

Mick Herron. Credit: Jarrold.

Mick Herron (born 1963) is an award-winning British author who writes mysteries and thrillers. In addition to the Slough House series, he has written seven other novels. 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.

For additional reading

The author is one of The best spy novelists writing today.

Be sure to check out “Counter-Espionage,” a delightful interview with Mick Herron by Jill Lepore in The New Yorker (December 5, 2022).

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