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Britain's MI5 Spy Agency Proves More Comic Than Tragic In 'Slough House'

Penguin Random House

There are scads of talented spy novelists, but the ones who matter capture something essential about their historical moment. Back in the 1930s and '40s, Eric Ambler nailed the sense of ordinary people being caught up in the machinations of great totalitarian powers. A few decades later, John le Carrécaught the personal and moral ambiguities of what John F. Kennedy dubbed the "long twilight struggle" of the Cold War.

The spy writer most attuned to our delirious moment is Mick Herron, a British novelist whose funny, brilliantly-plotted Slough House books are currently being turned into an Apple TV+ series starring Gary Oldman. These novels boast an irresistible premise. They follow the adventures of a group of maladroit MI5 agents who've somehow blown it — you know, left a disk marked "Top Secret" on the Underground, or slept with an ambassador's spouse.

But instead of being fired, these slow horses (as they're known) have been shunted off to a rundown London building known as Slough House. There, they do suffocatingly dull tasks under the scornful eye of one-time master-spy, Jackson Lamb, a repulsive genius who tirelessly and hilariously insults them, punctuating his abuse with farts. Yet even as HQ tries to keep the slow horses hidden away, they somehow always wind up in the middle of the action.

It happens again in the series' terrific seventh installment — titled Slough House — just published by Soho Crime. This time out, someone has been killing off Slough House alumni and is now coming for the current crop. But why? The answer lies somewhere in an intelligence snafu that involves the ruthless head of MI5, a shambling but ambitious Boris Johnson-like politico, an online media mogul who cares more about making money than broadcasting truth, and that nice man in Russia, Vladimir Putin.

If you've read the earlier Slough House novels — and if not, I urge you to start at the beginning with Slow Horses — you'll know that Herron tells his stories with extraordinary verve. He juggles multiple plot lines and reveals character in sharp, sardonic strokes, like this line about the Boris Johnson figure: "Achievement, in other people, was not something he admired: it was like watching somebody walk around in shoes he'd planned to buy."

Ricky Gervais' original Office was set in the much mocked city of Slough, and in that tradition, the Slough House series is partly a workplace comedy whose employees do jobs they don't care about, spend hours getting on each other's nerves, and earn nothing but contempt from their boss. Herron makes all his slow horses vivid, from egomaniacal tech whiz Roddy Ho — who everyone hates — to idealistic River Cartwright, whose granddad was a legendary spook, to proper Catherine Standish, a now-sober alcoholic who had once been MI5's Miss Moneypenny then drank her status away.

At a larger level, Herron's plots deftly reflect the immoral lunacy of our current history, from terror attacks on malls to a certain member of the royal family partying inappropriately. This latest book is set in a post-Brexit U.K. and the subjects it weaves together could hardly be more timely: news outlets that manufacture slanted news; Russian assassinations on British soil; attempts to privatize the intelligence service; and rich politicians tricking populist mobs into advancing their personal agendas.

Each of these topics is worthy of a le Carré novel. Yet Herron's tone is not remotely le Carré's. He comes from a later generation, one that finds the world of espionage more comic than tragic. Indeed, one of the underlying themes of the Slough House books is that the intelligence services — like modern politics — have declined to the point of travesty. These days, the slicksters around MI5 are all about jockeying for power. They follow what Herron calls "London Rules," whose key dictum is "Cover your backside."

Ironically, the grand exception is the egregiously offensive Lamb, whose scuzzy Falstaffian manner masks the brilliance of a George Smiley. Lamb was a spy back when you played by what he calls "Moscow Rules" — watch your back or you and your agents will be dead. Although Lamb sneers at his slow horses, they're his slow horses, and that means he's responsible for them. The last remnant of British spying's glory days, Lamb may be a bullying slob, but he has an old-school sense of honor.

Copyright 2021 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

John Powers is the pop culture and critic-at-large on NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross. He previously served for six years as the film critic.
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