Book review: Slough House by Mick Herron
Slough House (Slough House Book 7) - Mick Herron
Slough House gets title billing in the seventh book of Mick Herron's Slough House series, and with good reason, as Slough House, the nondescript building close to the Barbican in the East of London that is currently occupied by the dregs, failures and misfits of the British Intelligence Device, has been wiped from the map. Not literally, although the kill rate there seems to be higher than the average - Darwin's Law in action - but rather wiped, deleted and expunged from the service records. It's as if it didn't exist, which of course officially it doesn't. Something is going down however and it's not going to be good for the physically and odorously repulsive but seemingly invulnerable Jackson Lamb and his crew of 'slow horses'.
It's become difficult for writers to satirise UK and world politics these days when the government do a much better job of it themselves, and I thought the world was one step up the absurd ladder ahead of Herron in his last few Slough House books (London Rules, Joe Country). The author stages a remarkable comeback here however, both in the contemporary relevance and absurdity stakes, showing that there are even worse off spooks than those in Slough House (see the last novella The Catch). Just as wonderfully, he's on top writing form, still managing to come up with amusing descriptions and similes, such as Lamb turning up at out-of-hours spooks club above a tobacconists shop attended by undesirables of all nationalities "a doss house for the weird and lonely', where "Lamb had found a bottle of malt and was in a corner smoking, looking like a bin someone had set fire to".
So Herron makes more use of the real world this time, and here the operative issue involving the Park - the headquarters of British Intelligence Services managed by First Desk Diana Taverner - is that they've taken out one of Putin's men on his own turf, "a hit on the hitter" who recently came over to the UK ostensibly as a tourist and left a few people in a bad way with the not particularly careful application of Novichok. Due to budgetary constraints and operational difficulties causes by the Brexit European withdrawal (which Herron compares to not so much a Dunkirk retreat dressed up as victory as more of a Titanic moment) there was a bit of private outsourcing involved and that turns out not to have been a great idea. Absurd? I'm not so sure the world isn't still one step ahead, but Herron certainly knows how to expose the humour of it.
As for Slough House, as unlikely as it seems, but you know how leaks and rumours tend to get around - sometimes intentionally - Putin's people have been led to believe that the British Secret Service have a hotshot squad of international assassins and ...you guessed it, someone has pointed the finger at Slough House. Ouch. Of all the fates that have befallen Lamb's team of underappreciated slobs and screw-ups, this is surely going to be the mother of all headaches for them yet. How many are we going to see whacked this time? Well, it's definitely bad news for one or two of them and, strange as it seems, one former slow horse is even in danger of being killed a second time.
Herron is on top form here. The last few Slough House books felt very insular with a lot of spy-on-spy rivalry and settling of scores. There's quite a bit of that here too of course, but this time it feels more connected to the world outside. There's always a degree of political satire in Herron's Slough House/Jackson Lamb series but here he touches upon some larger scale targets (or conspiracies if you like) involving the media, national sovereignty, business influence on government, social unrest, public protests and its manipulation by ambitious populist politicians to boost their own profile and further their career. More than that, even with all the humour and satire, Herron finds a way to make this feel very real and human; and not necessarily human in any positive sense.