JANUARY 30, 2016
BRITISH AUTHOR MICK HERRON is not a spy novelist, in the narrow sense of the term, though most of his books deal with intelligence agencies in one way or another. His first novel, Down Cemetery Road (2003), begins with the funniest dinner party scene I have ever read, and then, after a nearby explosion, shifts into thriller territory. Down Cemetery Road also introduces a running character in Herron’s first four books, Zoë Boehm, a private detective. The second, The Last Voice You Hear (2004), is at first a serial killer story and then shifts into a siege thriller (rather like Stanley Ellin’s Stronghold, but with the comedy that is a hallmark of Herron’s work). The third Boehm installment, Why We Die (2006), is mostly a rural-noir story, a bit reminiscent of Daniel Woodrell, but in rural England, and the fourth, Smoke and Whispers (2009), begins with Boehm as a corpse and follows a twisting path that centers on the female central character of Down Cemetery Road, who is trying to find out why Boehm was killed. The Boehm novels remind me a bit of literary crime fiction of the sort that Kate Atkinson dabbles in occasionally: very well written, often meditative, and, in Herron’s case, with more overt violence and comedy.
I first discovered Herron when Slow Horses (2010), the first book in what would become his “Slough House” series, was published: that book impressed me so much that I immediately sought out his Boehm novels, and anything else I could find. Herron has also written two very good stand-alone novels. In the earlier one, Reconstruction (2008), the narrator briefly inserts himself to announce that the text is a post-incident reconstruction of the events leading up to a siege in a nursery school in Oxford. Both the narrative intervention and the very twisty plot look forward to the author’s more recent books, but Reconstruction is the most driven, as well as one of the most complex, of all Herron’s plots. The reader doesn’t really know what’s going on or who the characters really are until they are in flight at the end of the siege.
The other stand-alone, Nobody Walks (2015) falls in the middle of the Slough House series and shares a good deal of setting and background (the same spy agency, headed by the same people, and with the same ruthlessness). But it focuses on a retired agent who returns to England to avenge his son. The book is a deep evocation of the consequences of both violence and revenge. Overall, Herron’s work succeeds in repeatedly setting up and then undermining the reader’s expectations because of his humor and because his characters are believable and earn our sympathy (despite or perhaps because of their extremely flawed nature). His skeptical point of view satirizes not only the business of violence, but also the broader patterns of the world we live in.
The Slough House series maintains the literary quality of Herron’s previous works (especially in some framing scenes that employ a somewhat supernatural device) but in a faster pace that is less melancholy or meditative, and more comic. The recent novels mix structural and verbal comedy with the high stakes of spy fiction. The first in the series, Slow Horses, deals with the threat of terrorism; the second, Dead Lions (2013), with the revival of a Soviet sleeper cell; and the third, Real Tigers (2016), focuses on the most serious threats to any security service, the meddling of politicians and the conflicting ambitions of the agency’s own leadership. Herron has throughout his career used an un-named British internal spy agency, clearly MI5, as a vehicle for his unconventional thrillers, and with his recent fiction he has found his perfect milieu: a halfway house for disgraced agents called Slough House, far from the agency’s headquarters and far from any real action or access. The building is also the source of the group’s nickname, the “Slow Horses.” The agency is unwilling to fire them, hoping to induce them to quit by imposing endless paperwork and perpetual boredom. But in some cases, the dispensability of these agents-in-exile gives them an operational advantage.
The leader of this pack is the rumpled, flatulent curmudgeon Jackson Lamb, hardly the image of the usual spy novel protagonist. The Slow Horses include, at the time of this third installment, three men and three women, from the young River Cartwright, disgraced in his first mission (a readiness exercise that resulted in the shutdown of central London), to the middle-aged, alcoholic Catherine Standish, Lamb’s assistant, and these two — the youngest and the oldest — are linked in Real Tigers when Standish is kidnapped. The kidnappers ask her whom among the Slow Horses she would trust, thrusting Cartwright into a complex series of plots and counterplots in the deeper regions of the intelligence establishment.
What’s really going on, though, is a complex web that only unravels slowly. Herron’s novels are puzzles, but not in the sense of a traditional puzzle mystery. The narrative voice is always in the third person, but each short section focuses on the point of view of one of the characters — each of whom has only a partial understanding of the situation. The result is a kind of jigsaw puzzle in which the reader is offered only these partial perspectives, resulting in sudden and often funny revelations, when the false impression given by one point of view is clarified in a later episode or an alternative point of view. Herron isn’t tricking the reader with these twists and turns of plot; he’s creating a story that, while remaining a thriller, is a farce with a deeply skeptical attitude toward the intelligence establishment, the government, and the general public. The comedy is very dark, leading directly to a violent assault in the final chapters, and it’s nearly impossible to say much about the plot without undermining the considerable pleasure of the story’s frequent, sudden shifts in direction.
Herron’s narrative voice is also an important element in the series: the third-person speaker is omniscient and, despite his withholding of information from the reader, is a constant commentator, his verbal wit adding a comic edge to the threat level of the story’s events — from the kidnapping to revenge, murder, and an uninhibited assault by a paramilitary force, all of which remain in the context of the bureaucracy and records management of the spy trade. But Herron’s strength is in examining at close hand the absurdities, conflicts, and dangers of the intelligence agency as an institution at the center of some of the most central conflicts in the 21st century. He uses the spy trade as a frame to examine with wry humor the ruthlessness at the core of our purportedly civilized Western society.