A milkman and slow horses: Mick Herron’s brilliant British intelligence series

This year Mick Herron published The Catch, a slim read set in his award-winning world of disgraced British MI5 agents who are minimized to tedious office work because of career-ending blunders. They live for the unlikely possibility they’ll be brought back to coveted field work by Regent’s Park, spy headquarters overseen by the daunting Diana Taverner. The Catch came to my attention when The Mysterious Bookshop offered a signed first U.K. edition. That, combined with the temptation of discovering an absorbing espionage series, caused my “must have” and “add to cart” reaction.

Agent John Bachelor has lost his house, wife and pension in The Catch, due to financial stupidity. He’s at the end of his rope and career, living rent free in a dead spy’s flat. John failed to let Head Office know the spy died of a heart attack. He’s what Regent’s Park labels a milkman “catering to the Service’s has-beens,” i.e., checking in on the pensioners and walking wounded. His living arrangement is a secret that opens him up to being blackmailed, which happens when two British agents, off the record, want him to find Benny Manors. Benny is on John’s list of routine check-ins, but John lacks a conscientious work ethic. He hasn’t seen Benny for two years. Of course, something’s not right with these two agents. John takes his suspicions to head goddess Diana Taverner, hoping to redeem himself, cornering her on the street after her morning workout.

[John] This pair, they’re up to something. I can help you find out what.
[Diana] How many second chances do you need? You’ve had more lives than a cartoon cat.

What Benny knows and why the agents need that information keep the pages turning to a surprising conclusion, but so too does Herron’s cleverness, the unexpected reveals and turns, the kind that make you laugh at the sheer brilliance of them. Closing the book, I ordered a paperback copy of Slow Horses, the first book in Herron’s Slough House series to which The Catch, a 105-page novella, is related. Slough House is the name of the building where Herron’s disgraced agents get parked, an unremarkable gray blur hidden between an obscure Chinese restaurant and catch-all grocery. They are the slow horses condemned to “the twilight of the second-rate.”

Slow Horses proved to be as fast-paced and engaging as The Catch, and also as entertaining, with hilarious quips by the agents, page-turning complexity and delightfully good, whip-smart writing. Consider this amusing explanation of “The Stupid Moment” committed by slow horse Agent Min Harper, who left a high security disk on a train:

He might have got away with this if the disk’s pouch hadn’t been bright red, and stamped Top Secret. And also if the woman who’d found it hadn’t handed it in to the BBC. Some things were too good to be true, unless you were the one they were happening to: for Min Harper, the episode had been too awful to believe, but had happened anyway. Which was why Min had spent the last two years of a once-promising career in charge of the first-floor shredder.

River Cartwright is the agent of focus in this espionage thriller, having botched a terrorist training exercise in the underground subway. He’s haunted by suspicion he was set-up by a fellow agent, who told him to watch for a man in a white tee under a blue shirt, when the man turned out to be in a blue tee under a white shirt. Slough House boss Jackson Lamb, the book’s most disgusting character and fascinating for his conniving brilliance, has River digging through the garbage of a right-wing journalist but without giving details of why. Meanwhile, all hell breaks loose at Regent’s Park with a hostage crisis — a Pakistani university boy is kidnapped by a right-wing group threatening to decapitate him on live webcam. Slough House agents get involved, not by the desires of Head Office but by their own initiative and Jackson Lamb’s smarmy manipulations. 

Herron keeps the frenzied pace at high pitch, juggling multiple plot lines of the journalist, Cartwright’s set-up, the hostage crisis and Lamb’s weird involvement in or knowledge of everything. It’s a lot to tie together, but that’s where Herron is so impressive: not just making it all work, but doing so without any weakness that would allow us to figure it out ahead of time. And then there is that clever writing, those best lines that showcase agent cynicism and keep the narrative falling prey to heavy intensity.

Duffy said, ‘Jed, a word of advice. Jackson Lamb’s got the authority of a lollipop lady. You’re three rungs below that.’

Close to the end, I could feel the balancing act, as Herron jumped back and forth in short paragraphs/sections about each, briskly keeping us apprised of several circus rings. I didn’t like the feeling of being “hurried up.” It’s a minor quibble because it didn’t go on for long and the conclusion stayed on point with Herron’s incisive storytelling. For those who love British espionage and clever sleuthing, who love having the next book and the next at the ready, Mick Herron’s work should be top of the list. From these two books I’ve read, let alone the ongoing praises and high ratings, you’ll be smartly engaged and highly entertained.

Do you get hooked by books in a series?

Dead Lions is next up in Herron’s Slough House series, but I’m done. I’m not one to get involved with book series, although I’m always willing to read the first book and hoping I do get involved for the long haul. There’s nothing more wonderful than blissfully engaging with an imagined world the author continues to create. This is why I picked up The Catch and Slow Horses, but getting hooked by a crime/detective series has yet to happen for me.

To explain: there are three book series that did grab me full force, i.e., I couldn’t wait to read the next book: The West Country Trilogy by Tim Pears, The Regeneration Trilogy by Pat Barker and The Patrick Melrose Novels by Edward St. Aubyn. The difference comes down to atmospheric draw, which for these three is early 20th century rural England, World War I and British aristocracy, respectively. The worlds become magnetizing by their characters’ connections to them. They are not mere setting of quaint or dark locality or a memorable time period — something about the place or time affects the characters’ fates and reaches into their souls.

These three series are among my most favorite books of all time. As a young girl, I also loved and completed The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis, The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings by J. R. R. Tolkein, and The Little House series by Laura Ingalls Wilder.

By contrast, intriguing as a detective or agent may be in a crime series, a case typically is solved at the end of the first book. What is to come in following books are more cases. The setting/atmosphere may be intriguing with quirky villages on remote islands or noirish gloom, but it lacks that powerful nostalgic draw or melancholic identity I need — Narnia calling to me through the wardrobe. The Slough House agents demonstrate a deep want to get back to Regent’s Park, but their yearning is a descriptive profile, not a presence we suffer with them.

I’m disclosing only what I require to commit to a book series, not commenting on the Slough House books that come after Slow Horses. The series is highly-rated and award-winning. Should it be dramatized in a TV series, I’ll be first in line to binge-watch it, as I’ve done Ann Cleeve’s books about Shetland and Vera Stanhope on Acorn TV, and Henning Mankell’s Kurt Wallander on BritBox. Indeed, here’s hoping that happens.

Revision: The title was changed August 7, 2020, replacing “exceptional” with “brilliant” for editorial purposes only.

3 thoughts on “A milkman and slow horses: Mick Herron’s brilliant British intelligence series

  1. I used to follow series but I rarely find one that keeps me hooked these days. Partly down to my own changing tastes, but also partly because crime fiction tends to go for realism and grittiness much more than it used to, and frankly after the main character has been hospitalized four times, suspended from duty for subordination twice, recovered or not from his/her additcion issues, I find them hard to go on believing in! Bring back Poirot – he never changed, not even the style of his moustache… 😉

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  2. Thanks to your recommendation last year, The West Country Trilogy is among my favorite reads of all time as well! Still eagerly anticipating the return of All Sides Weekend Books to WOSU.

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