Herron is a fine, often glorious sentence-by-sentence writer, and fiercely funny with his dialogue. He plots very well too. Joe Country sees River Cartwright’s dangerous biological father, Frank, back in play, while the teenage son of the late Marcus Longridge has gone missing. Upshot: our heroes spend the last two-thirds of the novel on a violent away day in a snow-shrouded corner of Wales dodging a kill-squad. There’s more action and a bit less of the labyrinthine spook politics in this book than we’ve come to expect – and to my mind it suffers very slightly for it – but it’s still a hugely satisfying addition to the series. And in its dramatic cliffhanger payoff, it seems to promise a portentous new direction. Personally, I can’t wait.
"One Booker shortlist later, Galley Beggar were proved correct. Ellmann’s novel isn’t perfect, and it may not take the prize, but in a world where Ian McEwan is still at large, something introspective and richly painted is a tonic for us all...."
— The Daily Telegraph
4.25 out of 5
But for all the clever plotting, satirical nods and winks about the state of Britain today and all of Herron’s hilarious one-liners, what really stands out are his exploration and depiction of the themes of loss and connection. Looking back, perhaps they’ve been evident from the very beginning of the series. Everyone in the crew has had their career’s stalled, and Cartwright’s grandfather’s emerging dementia and frailty have been a major plot strand before. But here, with a member dying and Louisa risking her life to keep some connection with Min, they reach their apotheosis.
The plot is never the point of Herron’s acute examinations of human behaviour and society. Well observed, angry and deeply sad, Joe Country is fundamentally about injustice. Most of the slow horses are being punished for failures that are not their own; they are toys in other people’s games. The latest recruit is Lech Wicinski, removed from The Park (the headquarters of MI5) when child pornography is found on his computer. Lamb sets out to find out who framed him and how. Being Lamb, he doesn’t offer Wicinski the comfort of knowing this and indeed torments him with endless quips about his supposed transgression.
Mick Herron is fast becoming the go-to author for British espionage, and the sixth novel in his Slough House series, Joe Country, is up to his usual high standard. Slough House, fiefdom of the fabulously repulsive Jackson Lamb, is the naughty step for failed MI5 operatives, its “slow horse” inhabitants doomed to spend the remainder of their careers grinding through repetitive tasks. However, when Louisa Guy goes off piste because of a request by the ex-wife of her lover, now-deceased slow horse Min Harper, the team wind up floundering around a snow-bound Wales. There they become embroiled in a plot involving misbehaviour in very high places, blackmail and treachery. Aficionados can expect Herron’s trademark snappy dialogue, memorably flawed characters and sharp political observation; newcomers are advised to start at the beginning of the series.