As the slow horses wonder whether they are being targeted, Taverner realises quite how long a spoon is needed by those who would sup with the devil … Set against a background of “You Know What” (Brexit, like Lord Voldemort, is not to be named) and yellow vest protests, Herron’s formula of misdirection and multiple viewpoints still works like a charm.
In the seventh story in this series, Herron beautifully describes the lives of the spies with a past but no future who are left to confront those who believe they have a future but can ignore the past — while all the time Jackson Lamb broods over the coils of the story like the spymaster he truly is.
It’s no surprise the books are soon to become a television series starring Gary Oldman as Lamb.
He certainly appears to be having great fun in Slough House, the seventh novel in the series, and his enjoyment is rarely at the expense of the reader’s. But he occasionally overdoes it in his portrayal of Jackson Lamb as the most flatulent and misanthropic of the slow horses. We could probably all have lived without six descriptions of the anti-hero breaking wind: ‘He farted, a three-note trumpet solo, then eased his buttock back onto the bench.’ Lamb is set to be played by Gary Oldman in an Apple TV series and it will be interesting to see how the Oscar-winning method actor approaches this.
If he is not Le Carré’s direct heir, mixing as he does brutally funny comedy with drama, Herron has certainly devised the most completely realised espionage universe since that peopled by George Smiley. It centres on a group of slow-stream MI5 officers exiled to the barely-fit-for-humans building of the title... Really, what fascinates Herron is the interplay between people in a situation of which most of us do have knowledge — the petty duels and humiliations of office politics. It’s “HR” and “IT” as a microcosm of British society, with tough love and rough justice dispensed by Lamb, our revels’ Mr Punch.
Is that the way to do it? Is blackish farce the right tone for a state-of-the-nation novel masquerading as a thriller just at present? Do let’s have a vote on it.
The latest instalment again features the drunken flatulent Cold War burn out Lamb leading a motley crew of secret service failures from their shabby base near the Barbican - the Slough House of the title - and begins with a brief and brutal assassination abroad before the offended foreign power comes looking for revenge... Along the way there are sharp pokes at populist politicians, new media entrepreneurs peddling fake news and the old boy network which lurks behind them, but binding it all together is Herron’s portrait of the capital - grey, drizzly and full of menace but so alive - and of course the secret agent like no other, Lamb. Herron’s glorious creation – soon to be played in a TV adaptation by Gary Oldman – propels the story to the bitter end where the non-stop barrage of jokes is fatally undercut by a final shocking twist.
Herron is an excellent writer — check out the description of dawn slipping into Slough House in Real Tigers. But from Ian Fleming to Patrick O’Brian, no series’ author has been so doggedly repetitious with narrative structure. All the books open with a dramatic incident, like the pre-credit sequence of a Bond film. This is always followed by a descriptive tour of Slough House itself. Part One is a series of (usually low-key) disconcerting events while new characters are introduced. In Part Two the plot strands come together with chases, violence and deaths. Every novel closes with another downbeat tour of Slough House. The formula never changes.