Joe Country is Mick Herron's latest spy thriller.

Joe Country is Mick Herron’s latest spy thriller, but why should you care?

That’s easy. Think of today’s leading spy novelists, and the usual suspects will come up. John le Carré leads the list, of course (although sadly he recently died). Of those who are still living and writing, Joseph Kanon and Alan Furst surely merit inclusion, along with a few others who are less well known (and several I find unreadable but sell lots of books). But the name Mick Herron is rarely if ever mentioned, and it’s time for that to change. Herron’s exceedingly clever and often hilarious Slough House series surely ranks with the work of classical espionage novelists Graham Greene, Eric Ambler, Frederick Forsyth, Helen MacInnes, Len Deighton, and Ken Follett. The six novels and three novellas published to date in the series conjure up the screw-ups, bungled communications, bureaucratic wrangling, predatory budget-cutting, politicking, and score-settling that doubtless afflict today’s MI5 and MI6—and every other intelligence agency around the world.

Joe Country (Slough House #8) by Mick Herron (2019) 361 pages @@@@@ (5 out of 5)

Image of the building where Mick Herron's latest spy thriller is allegedly set
The building on Aldersgate Street where Slough House allegedly is located. In the photo, it appears to be in much better shape than in the novels.

These spies have been forced to come in from the cold

Joe Country, Mick Herron’s latest spy thriller, is the most recent of the Slough House stories, and in every way it’s a worthy addition. In the jargon of the spy world as Mick Herron would have it, field agents or operatives are joes. And joe country is thus anywhere spies ply their trade. Which is precisely where the denizens of Slough House are never supposed to be. The “slow horses” of the place have been cast aside from Regents Park—Herron’s fictional headquarters for the agency—and assigned to rabbit away at meaningless tasks to keep them out of trouble. Of course, when “needs must” (as they say in Britain), that’s the last thing they have any intention of doing.

This time, it’s a kid who forces them back into action

This time around, the provocation that causes the men and women of Slough House to rush out into the real world is, unaccountably, the disappearance of the fifteen-year-old son of one of their number. The boy’s father, Min Harper, died a grisly death in an earlier book, and his lover, Louisa Guy, feels bound to go looking for the kid. And when Louisa herself falls out of communication, well, the place pretty much empties out.

Two wild, unrelated stories. (You know they’ll converge, right?)

In fact, 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.

Mick Herron’s latest spy thriller features a cast of Shakespearean dimensions

Herron’s characters are irresistibly readable.

  • There’s Jackson Lamb, the legendary field agent who butted heads with the KGB but ended up riding herd over the misfits of Slough House. Actually, that’s no surprise. Lamb had somehow found it necessary to murder the agency’s managing director in his bathtub. He is now charitably referred to as a fat slob and rules the place with unrelenting ill humor and malice.
  • There’s his nemesis, Diana Taverner (Lady Di), who has finally achieved her ambition of gaining First Chair, or managing director, through years of vicious and underhanded manipulation of the hapless people who work for her.
  • And there are the boys and girls of Slough House—a knife-wielding murderer, a barely recovering alcoholic, a violence-prone pill-popper, and a narcissistic, sex-starved hacker, along with one or two who really, really don’t belong there. It’s a three-ring circus.

When these characters interact, the dialogue is often hilarious. Here, for example, are two of the slow horses talking about a third. (That would be the knife-wielding murderer.) “Being a psycho doesn’t make him a bad person,” she said. “No,” agreed [her colleague]. “It’s being a bad person makes him that.” So it goes on Spook Street.

Wait a minute! Is this MI5, or MI6, we’re looking at?

By the way, there is confusion about whether the “slow horses” of Slough House work for MI5 (Britain’s Security Service) or MI6 (the Secret Intelligence Service). In Joe Country, the agency in question is clearly MI6, since Herron refers to it as the Secret Service, as it is best known to the English public. The previous stories clearly pointed toward MI5, which of the two is alone empowered to operate on British soil where nearly all the Slough House action takes place. However, to confuse matters, Jackson Lamb had to have worked as an officer of MI6 when he operated in Berlin, as we’re reminded from time to time that he did. And in Joe Country, Lady Di finds it necessary to seek ministerial permission to mount an operation within England. That could only have been the case if she headed MI6. Oh, well, no matter. It’s all in fun.

About the author

Image of the author of Mick Herron's latest spy thriller
Mick Herron. Image: Times Literary Supplement

British author Mick Herron (1963-) has been writing mysteries, thrillers, and spy novels at least since 2003, when the first of his fourteen novels to date was published. He has been winning literary awards for his work for more than a decade.

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